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The role of a liberal arts college

The Board of Trustees states that: “Non-denominational colleges and universities like Carleton are not political actors that seek to shape directly public policy, nor are they religious organizations that seek to define, promote, and enforce morality. The delicate niche a college like ours occupies in society can easily be damaged and its credibility harmed if it is perceived as exceeding its proper mission.”

This statement, however, contradicts Carleton’s mission, which includes a commitment to foster critical thinking, inquiry and problem-solving strategies. The mission statement speaks to the importance of supporting academic exploration, practicing responsible stewardship of resources and environmental integrity. It emphasizes that the development of students’ abilities as leaders capable of addressing global issues is crucial to a holistic liberal arts education. A liberal arts college inherently shapes policy and morality, as it is one of the few institutions in our society that is set up to question values, critique existing systems and find solutions in an intellectual – and thoughtful – academic sphere.

Failure to divest when there is no ostensible risk in doing so contradicts the philosophical core of what a college owes its students: in receiving a liberal arts education students deserve engagement in the global community more than narrow educational experiences. Liberal arts aims to empower graduates with the freedom to critique and act contrary to societal conventions, constructions and institutions. The liberal arts promote intellectual independence and autonomy from authority and the ability to question values. This is imperative when our country is divided into two parties that won’t interact with each other.  As we have all witnessed, the Trump rhetoric directly threatens civil rights legislation, climate change legislation, the LGBTQA+ community, the undocumented community, women and communities of color. While we have not seen what the incoming administration will do, Trump’s appointments show that he sees no problem with corporate interest forming policy and misogynistic masculinity. Liberal arts students should be questioning the established institutions and asking how and why they exist as they do and what, if any, changes should be made.

This is exactly what students have done, resulting in the formation of countless student groups advocating for institutional change, such as change in food purchasing practices for which Food Truth advocates, divesting from direct holdings in the fossil fuel industry, or examining Carleton and Northfield energy (like Energy Club). Some of the biggest problems the 21st century faces are environmental issues. Students are questioning the role of the fossil fuel industry, and are searching for answers. Like any global problem, there is not one singular solution to climate change, but divestment is part of the solution.

The quote from the Board of Trustees at the beginning of this piece explains their vote to not divest Carleton’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry. As economist Milton Friedman articulates in a 1970 article, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” Colleges, however, are nonprofit institutions. The overarching goal of colleges is to provide an excellent education rather than increase monetary gain. Carleton stakeholders – alumni, faculty, students and parents –  have reflected, analyzed, questioned and examined our own institution. If Carleton truly does aspire for its graduates to become “active members” in society and “capable of finding inventive solutions to local, national, and global challenges,” then it should listen when they speak, instead of making weak excuses under the guise of being apolitical.

In truth, no decision is apolitical, as we see with the relationship between government and its residents through social contract theory. Social contract theory is the idea that citizens agree to limits on their freedom in exchange for governmental protection. Humans have a right to general safety and access to clean water and food, which is what governments tend to protect – a right to resources. In return, citizens also have duties to the government. However, the “political space” to which citizens owe duties in return for these resources has become amorphous and global in 2016. It seems that the College thinks there is a divide between public and private spheres of life. However, private actions have public environmental consequences, and this divide is dissolving.

Global sustainability and the challenges posed by environmental degradation are supremely urgent. According to a 2014 report by the United Nations, we have around “ten years to fix environmental problems by adopting not only sustainable initiatives but also sustainable attitudes lest we eclipse global thresholds of human-induced climate change.” With the irreversible consequences of climate change so eminent, partisan politics and a new administration that has only promised to reverse the international climate change legislation that has taken years to develop, it is up to institutions like Carleton to act according to its values and its mission statement.

Former Carleton President Nason asserted, “no college need apologize for its high purpose.” Colleges and institutions that have shied away from making “moral claims” in the past must stop and assert their position. It is weak and cowardly to do otherwise in an political environment that is too partisan, xenophobic and full of hate to make substantial change. Liberal arts colleges must be places of change and of action – with or without Trump as President.

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