Suzanne Rivera, the president of Macalester College, is actually describing far-reaching initiatives already underway on her own campus when recommending in her Star Tribune commentary what must be done to "put college within reach of talented students from under-resourced communities." ("After affirmative action: What colleges must do," June 2.) These include developing holistic admissions practices, "demystifying" academic expectations and providing mentors "who know what it is like to be the first in their families to obtain a degree." Fortunately for her, and for all of us, powerful precedents and memories embedded in the college's past endow her advocacy with transformative truths.
I'm confident about this heavy claim because I'm an American historian who taught at Macalester for better than 30 years. I had a lot to do with setting those precedents and generating those memories. I continue to see their enormous value for Macalester in the struggle to make higher education significantly more attainable for poor, marginalized and underrepresented students.
If these claims spark your skepticism, please join me next Saturday to mingle with graduates of the class of 1973 during Macalester's Reunion Weekend. You'll meet many of my students from a half century ago, almost all of them Black and comprising a heavy majority of all 1973-ers attending. Following introductions, I can confidently predict, they will turn the conversation to informing you about how their four years' residence at the college offered them profoundly life-changing academic challenges and opportunities for self discovery. You will hear, up close and personal, testimony that richly reaffirms those powerful historical precedents and memories so vital to fulfilling Rivera's vision.
That history itself goes like this: In 1969, 75 new first-year students (yes, those are the folks with whom you'll be conversing), all requiring heavy financial aid and almost all of them Black, suddenly assembled for orientation at practically all-white Macalester. Boom! Just like that. They arrived under the auspices of the college's Equal Educational Opportunity Program (EEO), which going forward was designed to sustain a close to 20% minority student body. In much smaller numbers that cohort also included white, Latinx and Native American people but, significantly, not Asian Americans.
EEO rested on deeply flawed financial foundations. Funding came entirely from annual philanthropic contributions and grants from the federal government. Both could be discontinued at any time — and far too quickly they were. By the mid-1970s, EEO had shrunk to become a shadow of its former self. And as a result, its 1973 graduates found themselves standing alone as an eloquent one of a kind affirmation of serious antiracist educating.
For precisely this reason, after the passage of a half-century, your Black conversation partners believe that they have become invaluable assets for Rivera. Their lives, they know, make it abundantly clear that academic excellence, personal achieving and democratic educating powerfully reinforce one another. That's the point made over and over in the eye-catching e-book these alumni have created to celebrate their reunion. Its title is "The 50th Anniversary of the First Graduates of the EEO Program: A Story of Success." And that's the elemental point that gives enormous credibility to Rivera's leadership.
How might colleges deploy these "invaluable assets"? Like this: by constantly demonstrating to its multitude of supporters how deeply the EEO story anchors Macalester's mission; by inviting these accomplished 70-year-olds to bring their wisdom, talents and life experiences directly to the college's current student body as mentors, peer counselors, internship supervisors and career development networkers; by turning students' interests outward to social justice, creative arts and community education projects in nearby neighborhoods, particularly Rondo, where significant numbers of EEO graduates reside; by inviting EEO graduates to join the admissions office in hands-on, face-to-face projects that yield admission applications from promising but otherwise hard-to-reach students of color.
Why, you may ask, would the folks you've just met agree to pitch in to make all this happen? Because these Black graduates are profoundly committed to making history repeat itself. Their overriding goal is inspire today's Macalester to create a 21st-century version of EEO.
I'll confidently predict that they'd willingly contribute their time, talent and wisdom in all these ways once they find themselves in partnership with Rivera in developing the resources required to sustain such a project. And in the end they'd be instrumental in creating a renewed Macalester that fulfills Rivera's vision and stands as a national model for the benefit of higher education.
James Brewer Stewart is the James Wallace Professor of History Emeritus at Macalester College.