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Sunday's column by Evan Ramstad ("Elite college admission should be luck of the draw," Aug. 27) is a valuable contribution, and I agree with the many fine points Prof. Michael Sandel makes. I would like to contextualize the comparisons Ramstad draws in trying to make the topic more relevant to Minnesota. It is a false description to compare different colleges only on a scale of better or worse.

Harvard, the University of Minnesota, Carleton, Augsburg University and (I'd like to add) St. Cloud State University are very different places. Each can provide excellent education to students who fit them. The difference between large "research 1" institutions, small liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities already makes it useless to put them on the same scale. An undergraduate student will experience very different educations in those settings. But even among large universities and among liberal arts colleges, there are important differences. How competitive vs. cooperative is the culture of the school? Is the institution adept at enabling first-generation students to navigate the transition to college? How much do particular majors at a school focus on career preparation vs. broad learning objectives?

Land-grant universities are different than private highly selective universities. Carleton and Augsburg serve very different students, as does St. Cloud State University. I highly respect the many colleagues I know in the mathematics departments at these last three schools, and I know how dedicated they are to their students. But their student demographics are quite different.

One of the strengths of American higher education is that we have such a range of institutions that can serve many different students well. One of the problems is that the general populace and high school students in particular aren't aware of these differences. So, Sandel's discussion of the drawbacks of a focus on meritocracy applies more broadly. The competition to be in the "best" school can make students ignore the important differences between schools and what would best serve them.

Thomas Q. Sibley, St. Joseph, Minn.

The writer is a professor emeritus at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University.


Ramstad's column on college admission practices is one the best articles not just in the Business section but in the entire paper in a long time — thought-provoking, timely, well stated and rational (many of which attributes are not present in most commentaries).

Some would argue that meritocracy is what has made America great and certainly that was true — in the past. When opportunity was truly made available to all, merit was how the cream rose to the top. I submit that is not even close to reality today. Like virtually everything else in our society, we are extremely bifurcated; money talks much more loudly than raw talent or ability. As noted by the professor, Harvard has 57,000 applicants for 2,000 slots. Who are these people?! How many tutors did it take for them to qualify? How much money was spent on preschools and extracurricular, resume-building activities? Where did their parents go to school?

Here's what I know: The cost of a four-year bachelor's degree at Harvard can be as high as $349,000. The cost for my undergrad school, the Harvard of the North, University of Minnesota Duluth, is around $111,000. (Of course, my four-year cost was $6,000 in 1966-1970, but that's for another letter.) Is Harvard worth three times as much for a bachelor's degree? Highly doubtful. As noted, however, it's not really about the quality of the degree, is it? Thus, the professor's point.

As for me, I probably wouldn't even be able to get into UMD today. Just a vaguely above-average public high school kid from Alexandria paying his own way. Tough luck, kid.

D. Roger Pederson, Minneapolis


It'll all burn somehow

It was a valuable article that Dennis Anderson wrote ("Working to fight fire with fire," Aug. 27) about the misunderstood value of fire as a management tool. With the ongoing devastating news of the Lahaina fire, fires in Canada and fires in the Pacific Northwest, it is easy to see how all fire is demonized. But Anderson reports how researcher Lane Johnson is making inroads in the current mindset. It must be clarified that they are talking about prescribed and managed fire. That is, a fire designed with specific goals. That is a far different from a wildfire caused by lightning, arson or the result of poor management policies.

As a former student of the Cloquet Forestry Center, I learned that nature exists in a symbiotic relationship. That means the flora and fauna (plants and animals) constantly seek a mutually agreeable existence. A key component of this has historically been the presence of fire. The U.S. Forest Service and many states over the years developed a policy that all fires are bad. The creation of Smokey Bear was highly successful — maybe too much. But lost in all this is the need for managed fires to control brush and rejuvenate our forest and grassland ecosystems. As mentioned in the article, Indigenous people used it as a tool to create livable space. We know that pioneer farmers used it to replenish soil fertility. Fires can be planned to be "hot" or "cool" when factoring in temperature, terrain wind speed and humidity. Certain coniferous species can only replant themselves when their cones are opened by fire.

Johnson sums it up best when he said forests will eventually rebalance themselves with fire as we kick the can down the road. Removing it from the mix of management tools diminishes the efficiency of our governmental agencies. As the title suggests, we need to return to the use of fire both to diminish its threats to life and property and to manage our mixed habitat from prairie to forests.

Joe Polunc, Waconia


Laws don't write themselves

The headline on the outstanding piece of journalism "Firearm tracing hampered by law" (Aug. 27) is very telling, but the accompanying article doesn't sufficiently hold accountable those responsible for hampering efficient crime-gun tracing.

It's thanks to the deliberate Republican campaign to keep the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives underfunded and their successful yearslong effort to keep the agency crippled by blocking confirmation of an ATF director that gun traces face such a backlog. (Now, at long last, after seven years of Republican obstructionism, a director, Steve Dettelbach, was finally confirmed last year.) By law, gun dealers and their inventory may be monitored once a year and are supposed to be inspected at least once every three to five years, but in practice, they are rarely inspected more than once a decade. Among the repercussions of lax oversight is a failure to rein in the rogue dealers who, though small in number, sell a disproportionate share of crime guns that end up on our streets.

Other Republican-led initiatives, including the Dickey Amendment that curbed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research into the scope and causes of gun violence and the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act that shielded gun manufacturers and dealers from liability, have further constrained needed gun violence prevention reforms.

As long as Republican lawmakers continue feeding at the trough of the gun lobby and manufacturers — and place their fear of offending the hand that feeds them above the need to reduce violent gun deaths — the bloodshed will continue.

Mary Lewis Grow, Northfield, Minn.