Should student protest be punished?

In the McCarthy era, I chose to attend a liberal arts school that some people called “pink.”   My Republican parents were not pleased. Hubert Humphrey had taught at Macalester College. Its students and faculty believed in spreading the wealth to the underprivileged classes.  Most of us were from Christian families living in the Midwest,and it seemed natural to extend our support  to join causes that would free oppressed people and  continually strive for fairness and justice. What frightened some parents, like mine, is that Mac had a sizable foreign student body, which opened our eyes to the larger world. Could we handle it? Mac students of my generation did, by thoughtful study that deepened our understanding. We were not “activists.” We were even branded (nationally) the “apathetic generation” and the “do-nothing generation.” There were no protests. We may have brooded a bit too much.

In recent years, Macalester has become renowned for its high academic  standards and its continued stand for justice and equality . Last Spring (2013), student protesters demanded that Mac no longer do business with a certain bank that is considered a “predatory lender” and has been disturbingly quick to foreclose on homes during the recession. Two of these students were judged by a committee, which included the President of Macalester, to have gone too far, and were severely punished. Subsequently, this and other administrative actions during the protest and prior to the incident came under under attack by shocked and disillusioned alumni.  The administration posted its defense. I joined the discussion  with my letter defending the students; it is slightly edited here:

SUBJECT: Alumni Response to KWOC Issue
This distress caused by disagreement over what constitutes legitimate activism and the proper punishment of activist students reminds me that we alumni who make gifts to our colleges and universities out of gratitude for our own years as students are likely to be disappointed, as the priorities of institutions change. Macalester in 2013 is not the Macalester of 1959. Good or bad, that’s the reality. Sadly, this is the kind of giving most of us can afford, with pure gratitude and sentiment. It is only a few people – especially at a school like Mac (able to select its students for academic promise, not financial means) – who have the resources to give unconditionally.

That said, I am shocked by President Rosenberg’s hasty response to Jerry Fisher’s letter of disapproval over the committee’s harsh actions against the students who staged the protest.  In my opinion, the best kind of administrator would have first acknowledged the legitimacy of the students’ concern. He or she then would have explained in some detail just how the decision to stay with Wells Fargo was made – with facts. Furthermore, this case should have been made with those students, and not have even gone as far as to the newspapers and the alumni.

I don’t know those students, and perhaps they are a nuisance, but I support their right to ask their administration to consider the stain on the school by giving its business to any bank that has a  reputation of predatory lending and unfair foreclosures.

That said, I admit that I am a holder of several accounts with the bank in question. However, I didn’t  choose Wells Fargo; they chose me by buying out my original bank (First Interstate) and my financial advisor (Prudential). Though banks can absorb each other easily, I  know firsthand it is not easy for customers to switch banks at an advanced age – and that may well be Mac’s only justifiable excuse.  If Macalester is going to continue to appeal to people with causes and conscience, then it must live up to the highest standards of this constituency.  Mac seems to be a crossroads, or perhaps (suggested by other reported disappointing actions) it has taken a slide further down a slippery slope.  I am not close enough to the scene to understand fully how far the administration has strayed, but I do hope the Trustees investigate.

I also hope that someone – perhaps faculty – will give some attention to the root of the matter, the issue that has precipitated student protest, and explore it to the fullest with all students. What is the bank doing intentionally and what are the unintentional consequences? Can we hold a financial institution to a moral standard?  Can we as an educational organization or an educated public do anything to change bank practices?  Should there be legislation proposed to protect people from losing their homes?
And then: What defines a home?
A new book by Howard Mansfield titled: Dwelling in Possibility; Searching for the Soul of Shelter is a good place to examine that question

The overall theme is to understand what kinds of relationships we have with our houses.  He begins with discussions of hearth and the changes that came with electricity. He discusses clutter, why people hate the Frank Lloyd Wright usonian houses, and the differences between straight sidewalks and meandering paths, before going on to a recollection of the burning of homes in World War II.

We remember the Blitz, but we rarely remember that American and English warfare tactics include the deliberate fire-bombing of German and Japanese cities to make its people homeless and break their spirits of the people. That was our goal. 

Perhaps we can take a leap of imagination and understand how young people with good minds and hearts can believe Wells Fargo and, by association, Macalester College, is breaking the spirits of the people when the banks unfairly foreclose on homes after having loaned money to the same homeowners for their mortgages. These hearts and minds must be our first concern.


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