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Carleton the global citizen? An interview.

<st spring, I interviewed Professor Michael Hemesath, chair of the Economics Department, about the concept of “global citizenship” at Carleton. I’d always been uncomfortable about the transparency of Carleton’s budgetary decisions on sustainability and diversity, and it was encouraging to learn that seasoned faculty were thinking about these things. I wish I could have read this interview as a freshman, so here it is.

Is Carleton being a good “global citizen” through green initiatives like the windmill, Bon Appetit and the new dorms?

The economics of the windmill trouble me. There was a significant subsidy from the state of Minnesota put in – the windmill was not an economically viable option on its own. And I think we do not educate students honestly about the windmill and the possibilities for wind energy. I think we could use it more educationally than we do, but given that we don’t, I think it ends up being more of a marketing tool.

I don’t think that Bon Appetit is a particularly different actor in the marketplace than Sodhexo… their arguments about buying things locally – I think that’s green-wash (there are times in which it makes sense, and there are times in which it doesn’t make sense, environmentally). And again, that’s an opportunity for education, but I think we don’t pursue that opportunity very deeply, and Bon Appetit doesn’t necessarily want to encourage that, because I think you would discover that they’re not that different from the other food service providers out there.

But I understand, it’s not clear who does it – does (former President) Rob Oden get up and give a lecture about the economics of wind turbines? Not likely. That just doesn’t make sense. And Carleton, I think, is no different than other schools in this regard – there’s a wind turbine at St. Olaf, and lots of our competitor institutions do similar things.

But I just think there’s educational benefits there that show that the world is a bit more complicated than we might think… there was the sense that there was unmitigated good to go from Sodhexo to Bon Appetit, and I think it’s turned out to be more complicated than that.

With the new dorms – this LEED certification stuff that we have focused on – as an economist, my view is that decisions about energy efficiency and sustainability should be made on economic grounds. And if it makes economic sense to put in solar panels, then we should absolutely do that. If we put in solar panels that cost more than traditional heat, I think that takes resources away from all the other things that we care about – the obviously feel-good things like financial aid, but it takes away from salaries; it impacts tuition… what I found particularly frustrating about the LEED process is that you have to devote a significant number of dollars to get the certification.

To my mind, what we should have done was say, we are following LEED certification standards which we will judge on our own, not pay someone to come in and give us that stamp of approval. Because it costs something like $150,000 to get the certification process done for the two dorms, and that’s serious money. That’s two to three staff positions, one to two faculty positions… And I think that when we let students in the broader community think that these things are cheap, or free, we’re doing a real disservice.

Do you see the international student body being shaped by financial factors like the Starr Foundation grant?

I think that we have been pleasantly surprised at the degree to which Carleton is known beyond U.S. borders. I think that’s happened more quickly than we thought with the Starr money, and I think we thought, “This is absolutely great; we can put up financial aid for students that are less well-off, for students in developing countries, in many cases,” and the hope was that as we went to recruit at their schools, and their families got to know Carleton, that that would help extend Carleton’s name recognition… But we have significantly more applications and more matriculated students beyond those that are getting financial aid (more full-pay and partial-pay international students) more quickly than we thought, given the seed money from the Starr Foundation.

Now, I think there’s a real question as we move forward:  if we increase the number of international students, who will those students be replacing? If you have a full-pay international student that replaces a half-need domestic student, then the college has more tuition dollars than it did before. We’re in the midst of figuring out how to solve some long-term budget deficits…

I would not take some attempts to control financial aid costs off the table, but I think the first question we should start with is, what’s the ideal class, from Carleton’s perspective? What’s the right mix of domestic/international? What’s the right mix across the international pool between students with need and full-pay students?

When we went after the Starr Foundation grant, we consciously said we’d like to internationalize the student body. And the compromise that was made there was that the Starr money was focused on Asian students, primarily… Now, fortunately, Asia is a big part of the world population, and it wasn’t just East Asia, or South Asia, so we could go all the way from China through Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Pakistan, India, Nepal. Asia’s a pretty diverse part of the world, to be sure, so I don’t think that we felt like we were compromising too much…

But you raise important questions, and I can promise you the college is thinking about these questions and will have to be making some hard decisions in the next years as we try to shape our classes going into the future, subject to the resource constraints that we have.

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