The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Column: Grinnell needs to regain its progressivism

At admitted graduate students’ day at the University of Chicago, I had a chance encounter with William Sewell Jr., one of the nation’s most eminent political historians. Sewell is also the son of a fabled University of Wisconsin president and sociology professor, William Sewell Sr., who, among other things, was known for his leadership in increasing the accessibility of higher education to underprivileged demographics. While we concurrently discussed graduate school and his father’s academic activism, the younger Sewell made an important, albeit clichéd, point. It is one with which I still have difficulty coming to terms—that the liberal education is immeasurably valuable because it enables us to engage in our communities, perhaps even change them, via a heightened adroitness at a vague skill called “critical thinking.”

I often have no clue what I’m doing here at Grinnell, or why I’m going to graduate school next year. While I pondered these questions, I found it helpful to go to the faculty event a few weeks ago, where three very talented professors discussed hiring and firing at the College. Though this is the last column that I’ll publish at Grinnell and I don’t want to end on a critical tone, I can’t help but note the relationship between academic life and activism on campus, something these professors helped to clarify.

We would be wasting our education, our money and our time if we didn’t stop and question our administration from time to time. While I wish President Osgood well in his retirement, I am not surprised to see him go. I agree with David White’s assessment of Osgood’s “collegial style,” and I’m sure he’ll make a good teacher in the ensuing years. But as we begin our search for a new president, it’s important for us to praise and acknowledge what Osgood has contributed (Posse Foundation, Prison Program, Expanded Knowledge Initiative) while learning from his shortcomings.

Osgood reminds me of the now laid-off G.M. chief Rick Wagoner, who promoted gas-guzzling Hummers and tossed the electric car even as climate change began to plague our environment. Likewise, Osgood has run our school like an irresponsible corporate executive, with the simplistic goals of making more money, building huge buildings, and pocketing big paychecks. His mistakes are as spellbinding as Wagoner’s. In addition to the aforementioned achievements, Osgood ignored the potential advantages of wind energy and presided over a misguided admission staff, which, while making no progress in diversifying our community during the Osgood Decade, boasts as its sole accomplishment the creation of “No Limits.”

We need to keep in mind that we are a college that emphasizes social justice, which by definition entails treating people fairly. But the administration, at least in the last few years, has acquired a McCarthy-style power fetish. As an SGA Senator last spring, I remember the day Osgood appeared before Joint Board to introduce his new Student Affairs administrator, the one and only Houston Dougharty. Together, this dynamic duo spoke of ways to improve student life and foster a more nourishing and caring environment. In an inane propaganda stunt, Dougharty later showed up to a Harris party to convey his interest in campus life. Of course, Dougharty has since gone on to engender unthinkable tensions and, in the process, reveal an obscene lack of ethical standards.

A member of Joint Board also asked Osgood when he would retire. He stated that he would leave soon, but only if the College was in decent shape and if things were in order. In a Pinteresque twist of logic, Osgood now leaves Grinnell after losing a billion dollars of endowment money and helping to incite the most tumultuous faculty uproar in decades.

Though I do admire President Osgood’s many positive attributes, I strongly believe that he, along with his dream team of Dougharty and company, are no role models for undergraduates. Osgood’s worst crime isn’t mismanaging our school but failing to adhere to the principles of the liberal arts. Rather than thinking critically, Osgood conformed to the diseased culture of corporate greed that has infected most other elite colleges. Like Wagoner, he should have questioned the hedonism of the times and upheld Grinnell’s progressive heritage. And like Wagoner, he’s encountering the same destiny.

It’s important for us to identify real role models in the liberal arts world—people who utilize their education to question the status quo and improve their communities, like the professors at the aforementioned event—people like William Sewell Sr., who successfully critiqued the unchecked practices of universities and consequently made them more conducive to students from needy backgrounds.

Our new president should keep in mind the best interests of all of our current students, while simultaneously recruiting prospective students who likely wouldn’t otherwise attend Grinnell. She should work to create a student body that’s both visually and non-visually diverse. She should institute a practice for grappling with hate crimes and discrimination. She should strike a balance between “institutional longevity” and our Mission Statement, which calls for “serving the common good.” She should be a role model for all Grinnellians.
As I careen into graduate school, remarkably clueless, I constantly find myself reflecting on time spent with those heroes of Grinnell, the sorts of people I would like to one day become. These include my friend and mentor Victoria Brown, History, whose dedication to her students is unparalleled. Others are Pablo Silva, History, Sarah Purcell, History, Paul Hutchison, Education, Tammy Nyden, Philosophy, Ed Cohn, History, Rob Lewis, History, Liz Prevost, History, and many more. I also feel an intense kinship to the many close friends I have on campus, particularly my most intimate friend, Will Flagle ’09, who, simply put, is both the smartest and the nicest person I’ve ever met.

These people, through their activism, dedication to teaching and scholarship, and compassion and personal integrity, epitomize the very best things that a liberal arts college has to offer. And as we begin the search for a new president, let’s make the interests of our students and our faculty the focus of that search.

As I’ve done this year, I intend to continue critically examining the events taking place on campus and offering my advice or expertise if I have any, because Grinnell has been the best experience, academically and socially, of my life, and I’d like it to stay that way for generations to come.

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