Students at Macalester College have a long history of social activism, from protesting the war in Vietnam to boycotting sweatshops.
Most recently, a small group of students challenged the school over its relationship with Wells Fargo. The group, Kick Wells Fargo Off Campus (KWOC), asked the school to sever its ties with the bank because, they argued, it has foreclosed on more homes than any other in the state.
The debate between the students and administrators went on civilly for months. Students thought they were making progress.
But a couple of weeks ago Macalester notified the group that they decided to stick with the bank because the foreclosure mess was complicated and involved many financial institutions, not just Wells Fargo.
The college uses the bank for its purchasing card program, which employees use to buy supplies or services for the college.
In response, the students staged a two-day sit-in, during which time they blocked a door for a few hours, which is against school policy.
The protest was modest for Macalester, known for a robust and active student body. But the response by something called “the Conduct Hearing Board” was swift, and some say, severe.
The students were all put on probation for the next semester and will not be allowed to participate in any extracurricular activities, including internships, athletics, studying abroad and student government.
That has some alumni angry. A group of them have drafted a petition and promised to stop all donations to the school unless it removes the punishments and reconsiders doing business with Wells Fargo.
“Administrators’ choice to punish student activism and retreat from social justice doesn’t match Macalester’s values,” the alumni wrote in a petition to be delivered this week. “This is not the Macalester we know and love.”
Laurie Hamre, vice president for student affairs, said only about half the students (17) participated in the barricade because they knew there would be consequences.
“We don’t discipline students who sit in or protest,” said Hamre. “We do discipline when that infringes on the rights of other students.”
College President Brian Rosenberg was out of town, so could not respond immediately to the students’ demand for a meeting, Hamre said, leading to the barricade.
Alisha Roopchand knew blocking a door was against school rules, but thinks her punishment is too harsh. Roopchand said she won’t be able to try out for the tennis team in the fall.
“I’m the most disappointed in Macalester that I’ve ever been,” said Roopchand. “I came to Macalester because they stress civic activism. We know we were breaking a rule, but the punishment is so disproportionate to what we did.”
Roopchand was among those who worked with community groups active in the foreclosure issue. They gathered data against Wells Fargo and even found another local bank to handle the school’s business.
Roopchand said she and others had helped people in foreclosure through community volunteering, and they felt it was hypocritical for them to do business with Wells Fargo through their college.
Rebecca Hornstein was also involved in the protest “because we saw the devastation this crisis has had in this community.” She thinks severing ties with Wells Fargo would send an important message. She has graduated, but is shocked some students will have to forgo internships or being in leadership positions at the school.
“All the people getting punished are developing student leaders,” said Hornstein. “They went to Mac in order to live up to the school values of community involvement and making ethical decisions.”
Frank Hornstein, Rebecca’s father, said he is “very proud” of his daughter. “This is exactly what we want students to do: see a problem in the larger community, and then work with the community to solve it.”
Hornstein is a Minnesota legislator, and his wife, Marcy Zimmerman, is a rabbi. They both attended Macalester and said social activism has always been encouraged by the school.
“We love the institution and it really shaped who we are and what we do,” said Hornstein. “This was nothing in the annals of student protest.”
Mordecai Specktor, editor and publisher of the American Jewish World, went to Macalester from 1968 to 1970, and remembers much more serious protests over the United States going into Cambodia.
“I remember we took over the business office and blocked off the street, and I can’t recall anyone getting punished for that,” said Specktor. “I think it’s shameful.”
Hamre said the discipline was decided by a committee of students, faculty and staff. “The last sit-in was in 2000, and there was no discipline at that time,” she said.
But Frank Hornstein said he’s worried Macalester’s response had a broader goal than simply punishing those involved. “I think it’s meant to send the message that activism on campus is not welcome. This will have a terrible chilling effect.”