Tuesday, June 09, 2009

College Reunion

I started college at Macalester College in 1970. I had chosen, perhaps, one of the best, yet worst colleges to attend. It was one of the best because it encouraged individual growth and nonconformity. In fact one could say it was comformably non conformist. It was one of the worst because it went through the worst financial crisis in its history while I was enrolled there. Fortunately for me, I was a shallow college student at the time, and did not have the ability nor the time to really sit down and understand what was actually going on. I mean there was the Vietnam War. There was Watergate. It was hard to pay attention to all the crap going on, much less make it to class on time.

What happened was that the college had one very large donor: DeWitt Wallace, founder of Reader's Digest. And no other major donors. DeWitt had attended Macalester, his father had been the president of the college, but he had never graduated, instead going on to start the most successful magazine of his time. DeWitt was very, very conservative politically, as anyone who read the Reader's Digest could attest. He had given huge amounts of money to the school and it repaid him, he thought, very shabbily, by making the dorms coed with no hours, deviating from a standard curriculum, and increasing minority admissions to the college, among other things. So he snapped. At the end of my first semester, it was announced that he was withdrawing his financial support. Students like me, who were attending on a full tuition scholarship financed by him and courtesy of my status as a National Merit Finalist, were allowed to complete their years there with scholarship, but there would be no more. And no more funding for programs or buildings either.

At the same time I was beginning my freshman year, there were 18 new faculty members hired to teach at the college. Only 3 survived. One became a lifelong friend. He said that he was closer to the students than his peers because he and the other new hires were treated like dead men walking. The other faculty knew they would be gone by the end of the year and were embarassed about it, so just ignored them. Luckily his Department Chair left, which opened up a slot for my professor for another year, but then he was fired again, after his second year. He had been accepted to law school or he could have emigrated to Australia because the Australian government had ageed to pay for he and his wife to move there, but in the end the two of them decided to take a chance on the college. This risk taking was rewarded when yet another faculty member in his Department left for greener pastures, opening up a permanent slot from which he gained tenure and held for 33 years.

In talking with him about this time of tribulation at the reunion this weekend, I learned that the college went from a student population of 2400 in 1970 to 1400 in 1974, my graduation year. The faculty numbers were worse: down from 200 to 100 professors in the same time period. The college started borrowing on their endowment and ended up borrowing more than the endowment was worth, leading to significant threats of a lawsuit from DeWitt. My professor friend says that the college realistically should have declared bankruptcy. But in 1978 a new President, John B. Davis, was hired. And he, almost singlehandedly was responsible for repairing the rift with DeWitt and bringing him back into the fold as the major donor of the college again. When DeWitt and his wife died in the 1980's, they left a large chunk of money to the college in the form of Reader's Digest stock.

Most of this desperation at the college level escaped me at the time, even despite being a reporter and then an editor on the campus newspaper. I was too much into being a student and exploring all that living away from home entailed. I knew there were problems, hell, I even wrote a front page story for the school newspaper on them that was reprinted in the Monmouth College student paper, but somehow I never believed that the college could close. I cannot imagine how the professors could continue to teach in the classrooms at that time, without the stress affecting them in major ways, but my memories were of interesting, funny educators who were always willing to take time to talk and help me out, when I asked for it.

It was not until 35 years later that I learned how dire the straits were at the time, and how I blithely lived through the best of times and the worst of times. For those of us students who stayed on and did well at college and thereafter, I think it created a strong bond among friends, as demonstrated by our recent reunion. Many of us chose to spend the weekend in the dorm on the same floor . As we gathered in the evening in Kim's quad on 2d floor Wally, the years fell away and it was like we were back in school together, sharing stories and laughter and even some tears.

Returning to reality and fitting back into my day job has taken a bit of effort this week. I think I know a fraction of the disorientation a time traveller might feel after returning to the present. It was the kind of trip that I wish for everyone--to intensely recapture a bit of youth in later years. It was deeply, profoundly affecting to be back with old friends and to reconnect on the same level we had left it at all those years ago. How fortunate I was in the final calculation.

ps: the Sounds of Blackness are a Macalester staple for the past 40 years. I only regret that I did not attend any of their concerts before now.