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The Carletonian

“The Liberal Arts Vision – Cockeyed Optimism, Despite Evidence to the Contrary” – Part two

<art two of a two part series in which we present Mr. Hunter’s speech in its entirety.

The history of liberal arts education in Minnesota that Carleton shares is enlightened and good guidance (Merrill Jarchow’s Private Liberal Arts Colleges in Minnesota shout out). Consider this summary of President Cowling’s understanding and commitment as the College was defining itself in the early twentieth century:

Free men . . . would fashion a well-ordered society if they were taught to think and act in terms of the common good. The best instrument yet devised to do this was the peculiarly American institution known as the liberal arts college, an organization therefore vital to the preservation of our free society and worthy of men’s gifts and wholehearted support.(Fn omitted; Jarchow, 73)

Great fund raising sensibility and pitch there. The College had initially developed through the largess of believers in liberal arts vision, the salutary influence of its opportunity, such as William Carleton, our namesake, whose $50,000 gift in 1871 to “the obscure institution in Minnesota” followed the near death in a carriage accident in Connecticut of James Strong, our first president, whose life, according to Carleton, “had been spared by Providence for a divine purpose.” (Jarchow, 22)

To be where they are today, the College and the state’s fifteen other liberal arts institutions established in the mid to late 1800s had to meet founders’ ideological and practical goals, survive multiple economic depressions, the attrition of two world wars and other global conflicts, incessantly fund raise, recruit the best faculty and leadership they could afford, build and maintain physical plants, evolve curricula, and be responsive to a changing society, particularly by way of the intellectual and altruistic impulses of their students. We think now of diversity in mostly color-oriented terms, so it may come as a surprise that even these private colleges in their founding and missions also were quite identity and indeed ethnically-conscious. As the story goes, Congregationalists wanted in Northfield a Protestant, Yankee bastion while the Norwegians, Lutherans, Germans, Methodists, Swedes, Presbyterians, and Catholics wanted like institutions for their peoples throughout the state. From its first big cash kicker, Carleton was to be the elite Midwestern academic destination for white Anglo Saxon Protestants in keeping with other eastern Congregationalist schools such as Yale, Dartmouth, and especially Amherst; in the twentieth century, during the 36 years of the subsequent Cowling era to which I’ve referred, the College was very effectively and congenially serving its target population, just as its rivals and peers aimed to do; from the history –

Mainly Protestant and middle class, the Carleton student of the 1920s, if female, bobbed her hair and wore short dresses with belt lines at the hip, or if male, donned a coonskin coat and knickers. Both sexes attended required chapel services three or four times a week. (Jarchow, 74)

By mid-century, in 1957 under President Gould (Carleton’s own bonafide Indiana Jones, adventurer and geologist, second in command in the first Byrd Antarctic expedition,) we have this picture of the College, with Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin accounting for 57% of its students:

. . . [N]o matter where there origin, Carleton men and women in general were white, middle class, and Protestant. As such they possessed a homogeneity and consensus in goals, outlooks, and values which tended to minimize differences and militate against serious conflict. The majority of the faculty, enthusiastic over the pursuit of excellence, also shared the feeling of unity and did not seriously rock the boat. Expectations were clear and largely supported; fragmentation and pluralism, except in academic discussion, were strangers within the gate. For college administrators it was a relatively quiet and happy time. (Fn omitted; Jarchow, 181)

This scene may seem typical of the supposed Midwestern predilection for regularity and wholeness, but by the 1960s change was afoot in the entire regional collegiate culture:

. . . [T] nation’s minority groups had long been largely excluded from the ivied walls of most colleges and universities. In Minnesota in the mid-1960s, where almost 98 per cent of the population of 3,524,000 was white, 35,000 were Negro, and 38,000 Indian, the race problem may have seemed relatively remote from the ivory tower, but in actuality it was perched at the college gates. With their religious concern and sense of social service, the state’s private colleges could scarcely remain aloof from the growing efforts to help the disadvantaged and to make equal opportunities for all Americans more than an empty phrase — nor did the institutions wish to do so. (Jarchow, 150)

At Carleton during President Nason’s 1960s’ tenure our alumni brethren and sistren, who seemingly had been long ensconced in some glad and oblivious WASP cocoon, in fact had undergone quite a metamorphosis:

Products of their time, pluralistic, bright, and informed, these undergraduates recognized no sacred cows, constantly questioned the college’s traditional regulations and mores, and kept up continual campaign to effect changes. Their success was little short of amazing . . . But if the Carleton student was aggressive and demanding, he also shared his generations’s concern for social justice. Of the 278 members of the class of 1964, for example, 23 entered the Peace Corps — a higher percentage than in any other college or university in the country. Increasingly the voice of the undergraduate was raised in support of minority groups, especially Blacks. Aiding this cause was a Rockefeller Foundation grant of $275,000 to the college in 1964 to provide financial aid for underprivileged students. By the fall of 1967 there were 38 Negroes in attendance; a few years previously a Black student at Carleton had been a rarity. In 1968 a Negro was appointed assistant director of admissions and special counselor to Black students, who that fall numbered 52. It is the college’s intention that as soon as possible minority group undergraduates will constitute 10 per cent of the student body. (Fn omitted; Jarchow, 183)

This is heartening, since this chronicle of the College – and demographics – predict that the Admissions Office will be able to construct increasingly dynamic entering classes. But in these annals concerning the College’s ongoing relationship with undererrepresented populations, there’s a significant caveat:

To a large degree finances will determine whether Carleton will succeed in this program, even as they will influence greatly the college’s ability in every respect to remain a first- rate institution. (Jarchow, ibid)

In 2008, before this laudable assembly, the following question may seem dated, provocative, preposterous, even paranoid. But, should it be implicated by experience, well wishes notwithstanding, you can’t be afraid to ask it nor hesitant to explore ways to improve that experience. Is the minority presence at Carleton, to use a phrase, a fundamental, vital, inexorable element of the College in its ultimate mission and quality, or does it remain an initiative, a program subject to exigencies of budget, internal politics, re-weighted priorities, tangential to the more durable and manageable business of educating young white scholars?

Is the picture more problematic anyway, as academics are wont to say, given increasingly complex notions of diversity and of who is underserved or advantaged? These total questions were on the table when President Steve Lewis and I first met in 1988. Steve and I immediately agreed on the timeliness and essentialness of a structured return and involvement of the legacy of all students of color in order to strengthen and continue extending the Carleton opportunity. The fact is, the total human variety makes the Carleton experience so real and valuable, just as a nation trying to improve and perpetuate itself benefits from the interlocking resources and identities of the amazing peoples we alone possess. A quorum of this legacy of Asians, whites, blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, women and men eventually joined with President Lewis and staff in 1990 and the organization that convenes us here this weekend was born. Discussions were candid, exploratory, and opportunity-oriented. That quorum reached out to alumni and jump-started donations, launched initiatives, and established and formalized relationships with the College mainly through the Alumni Board. Bruce collaborated to devise the Circle of Mentorship to continue relationships and reach potential.

MCAN entered the annals of the College right on time, and the story, twenty years and counting tonight, is as with the rest of Carleton’s human legacy being harmonized and validated by our continuing involvement. I have shared experience analogous to your own as liberal arts alumni, as people seeking through knowledge and skill personal wholeness and the better life for those around you and for our great country; that’s why we get it, that’s why, Me(eee), We(eee), to rip off Muhammad Ali and (maybe) the shortest credited poem in English. We have to remain somewhat innocent, which as the Chinese poet tells us, is “ever able to experience the shock of beauty anew.” Which means, practically, we continually have to see anew, consider anew, act anew in serving the needs of the College, and there are many, but for me especially it is to continue to extend the Carleton opportunity to deserving young scholars from troubled and forgotten places.

In my bones I feel embraced and inspired by our alma mater, our nourishing mother here in Minnesota, land of sky tinted waters, that I am a child who matters to her. The problematic of diversity I mentioned earlier for me is a red herring. Consider the imagination, resources, willpower, abilities, connections, ideas, and desire in this room right now here in Great Hall in the blessed Great Plains. Specific goals can be defined and met through research, thought- partnering, modeling, and system-building, just as knowledge workers always pull it off. There can be more giving, presence, and support, improved yields and retention, more faculty of color, more total vitality and unity at Carleton. Knowledge workers, such as us, should, according to Peter Drucker, Harvard Business School’s revered management guru and fellow of immense common sense, focus most organizational talent and resources on opportunities rather than consume them in the problematic. Or, as my street philosopher father Rock would remind us about our creativity and enterprise –




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