MnSCU chancellor under fire from faculty

  • Article by: EMMA NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 31, 2014 – 8:10 PM

Faculty leaders at the college system’s 3 largest 4-year schools have voted “no confidence.”


Faculty leaders at the three largest four-year schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system have voted “no confidence” in the system’s chancellor, spurred by what they say is a lack of transparency and poor oversight of the 31-school system.

The faculty association at Minnesota State University, Mankato was the most recent to jump on board, with a unanimous vote of no confidence against Chancellor Steven Rosenstone on Thursday. Similar votes took place in recent weeks at Winona State and St. Cloud State universities. The three schools represent more than half of MnSCU’s students and faculty.

“The Faculty Association hopes that its action will encourage the MnSCU Board of Trustees to take a greater role in oversight … and redirect the Chancellor to more open and participatory leadership,” an MSU Mankato faculty association statement said Friday.

Faculty leaders have expressed particular concern over Rosenstone’s handling of Charting the Future, a long-term plan to reform the MnSCU system. Two faculty unions pulled out of the planning process last week, citing transparency concerns.

MSU Mankato Faculty Association President Mary Visser said faculty agree with the plan’s tenets — things such as increasing affordability and access for students. What they don’t agree with, she said, is how the planning process is unfolding.

“They listen to us because they have to, and then they do whatever it is they want,” she said. “And it’s not always, in our minds, in the best interest of the students, of our institution, of MnSCU as a whole.”

The faculty association statement called Rosenstone’s management decisions “secretive, non-inclusionary and damaging,” pointing out specific examples such as money spent on an outside contractor for Charting the Future.

“He spent $2 million on consultants while the state campuses were suffering crippling budget shortfalls and struggling with declining enrollment,” the faculty statement said.

Rosenstone declined to comment Friday. MnSCU issued a statement Thursday pointing to strong attendance at recent Charting the Future feedback sessions, called “Gallery Walks.”

“The initial success of the Gallery Walks is in contrast to recent university faculty votes of ‘no confidence,’ ” the statement said.

Larger concerns

Though Charting the Future is a big concern, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Faculty say they’ve struggled with Rosenstone’s leadership since he started in the fall of 2011.

“These concerns have been building, and they’ve existed for quite a while,” said Inter Faculty Organization President Jim Grabowska.

Shortly after Rosenstone’s arrival, he froze money that faculty use for professional development, such as attending conferences.

“That was something that didn’t have to happen. It’s not something that normally happened,” Visser said. “Right off the bat, it was like, ‘OK, what’s going on here? Is this person going to be in support of the faculty, or what?’ ”

In late spring, faculty members put together a “Bill of Particulars” listing issues ranging from a lack of opportunity for input on major decisions to how Rosenstone represents MnSCU at the state Legislature.

Still, faculty say, they haven’t gotten much response from the chancellor beyond official statements.

“What we really need is some serious conversation,” Grabowska said.


October 24, 2014
Tensions Between Faculty Members and Consultants Come to a Head in Minn.
By Peter Schmidt
In the latest of several recent rebellions by faculty members around the nation against consultant-guided college-reorganization efforts, the two unions representing faculty members in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system have disavowed further involvement in an academic reorganization under way there.
Citing suspicions of administrative secrecy aroused by the system’s initially undisclosed hiring of McKinsey & Company, a prominent consulting firm, the leadership of the two unions voted unanimously on Thursday to tell the system’s chancellor, Steven J. Rosenstone, that the unions would no longer participate in the planning of Charting the Future, a systemwide reorganization effort.
A letter that the two unions’ presidents subsequently sent to Chancellor Rosenstone emphasizes that they have no objection to the proposed changes in the system, which were brought forth as part of an effort to improve access, affordability, and educational quality. Instead, the letter says, the unions continue to have “concerns about trust and transparency in the process” of planning the reorganization that, they have concluded, will not be resolved through their continued participation by holding two of up to 18 seats on each campus’s reorganization-planning teams.
“We are, therefore, declining to participate further in the Charting the Future process,” says the letter from Jim Grabowska, president of the Inter Faculty Organization, which represents faculty members at four-year universities, and Kevin Lindstrom, president of the Minnesota State College Faculty, which represents faculty members at two-year institutions.
The Minnesota flap is hardly the first in which the use of consultants by higher-education leaders has drawn faculty suspicions. McKinsey’s involvement attracted suspicions in an academic-reorganization effort at Columbia University two years ago, as reported in Capital, an online publication about New York politics.
Faculty members at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Texas at Austin complained about a lack of information in pushing back against an administrative-reorganization effort being guided by Accenture. Other consultants, such as Deloitte and Academic Strategy Partners, have similarly been criticized for their work at other colleges.
Transparency Concerns
In an email sent to the Minnesota system’s students, faculty, and staff on Thursday in response to rumors of the pending union vote, Mr. Rosenstone acknowledged that “some things could have been handled differently and some handled better” in the planning process. But he denied assertions that anyone had been denied adequate representation in the planning process, and said the process must continue, given its expected benefits.
“While the heads of the unions may have made the regrettable decision to walk away from the table, their seats will be there for them whenever they decide to return,” Mr. Rosenstone’s email said.
Although the union presidents’ letter to Mr. Rosenstone broadly protests their perception that they had not had enough voice in the planning process, much of it focuses on concerns stemming from the revelation last July that the system had given McKinsey at $2-million contract to help plan the effort. Later it was learned that McKinsey had been involved in the planning, on an unpaid basis, from its beginnings two years ago.
When union officials sought a copy of the contract given to McKinsey, the system provided them with a version that was heavily redacted at McKinsey’s request, saying the system needed to respect the firm’s desire to protect trade secrets. The system subsequently offered to let university officials see the full contract in private, on the condition it not be relayed elsewhere, but they refused to view it under such a restriction.
A McKinsey spokesman on Friday declined to comment, saying the firm had a longstanding policy of not commenting on its work with clients.
“McKinsey made the decision of what to redact, but then we had to support that,” Kim Olson, the system’s chief marketing and communications officer, said on Thursday. “They redacted their own trade secrets, and we did not fight that.”
In explaining the firm’s involvement in the effort, she said, “We have never done anything like this before, so we asked McKinsey for advice.” The firm’s recommendations, she said, did not deal with the substantive ideas to emerge from the planning process but with the structure of the process itself.
Outsiders’ Perspective
Jordan E. Kurland, associate general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said his organization often heard from faculty members about outside consulting firms as threats to the shared governance of their institutions. The firms get accused of being “outside influences interfering, allegedly, with decisions by people involved with the institution,” and the backlash against their involvement is especially intense if administrators present decisions based on consultants’ advice as faits accomplis.
Among recent developments, as reported by the Associated Press, employees of the University of Northern Iowa have expressed frustration over their inability to obtain information from Deloitte Consulting about its proposals for an administrative reorganization of that state’s public universities. And the AAUP is investigating whether Felician College, a Roman Catholic institution in New Jersey, violated the rights of faculty members laid off this year at the advice of Academic Strategy Partners.
Steven C. Ward, a professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University and the author of Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education, argued on Friday that faculty members’ suspicions of private consulting firms’ involvement in college affairs are “very founded.”
Such firms “are brought in as leverage,” he said. “They give this appearance of objective outside advice to various boards, and those boards can use that advice to leverage the sort of change they are trying to accomplish.”
Generally, Mr. Ward said, such firms give advice based on their experience advising the management of businesses, with their emphasis on efficiency, productivity, and other concerns related to increasing profits. Often, he said, the outcome is big cuts in spending on personnel or programs that “are destroying what public universities should be about.”
“It is generic managerial advice applied to public institutions,” Mr. Ward said, “and you can make the case that public institutions should not be run that way.”
But Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, argued on Friday that Minnesota’s state-colleges system, which belongs to his organization, should be applauded for turning to a national firm for advice on navigating the profoundly changing higher-education landscape. He said the $2-million that the system had paid to McKinsey almost certainly will amount to a small fraction of the system’s long-term spending on reorganization, and is likely to bring “a positive return on investment” if it helps the system chart the right course.

A classic bear tale that did not end well, for the bear or me.


I’ve been procrastinating for over a year about getting rid of my 140,000-mile car. No more. On the way home from the cabin last night, I hit a large bear, head-on at a high speed.

l’m fortunate to be alive.The airbag did not work. The impact was so powerful that it crushed the entire front of the car. Even worse, the crash left the car on the center line, everything dead–no lights, frozen in park, and cars whizzing by at 70 mph on a two-lane country highway. Two cars nearly hit me, and I had to direct traffic with a flashlight for 15 minutes until a highway cop showed up.

The bear crawled off without the use of his right legs. A deputy and highway patrolman hunted in the woods for a half hour to put it down, but to no avail.

Bonnie had to pick me up in Pine City at midnight. Now the insanity of insurance companies, rental cars, hunting for a new vehicle–nevertheless, I’m alive but must have used up the 7th or 8th life last night.

I felt worse for the bear than myself. The highway patrolman kept asking, “Are you sure you’re not hurt? It’s a wonder you’re not dead.”


This union went toe-to-toe with one of nation’s largest higher education systems. The chronology gives you a sense of what a faculty union can accomplish in this era when most just wring their hands and despair. The future is not fait accompli–Carpe diem!

The Union Makes Us Strong: Selected IFO media highlights over the past 11 months in chronological order.

Today, I recall one of my mentors and an inspiration for my life’s work–Myles Horton and his Highlander Folk School. His spirit lives on, lighting the way along whatever back roads we travel to overcoming injustice and inequality.

Even though movement leader James Bevel called Myles “the father of the civil rights movement,” he remains as little known today as he was during his own life and times. For those of you unfamiliar with Horton, he founded Highlander, and among its thousands of students were Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Andrew Young, Ella Baker, and John Lewis.

Myles grew up a Tennessee country boy, Scotch-Irish and poor.  He eventually ended up at Union Theological Seminary, where he studied with Reinhold Niebuhr, a powerful advocate of the Social Gospel movement. Horton eventually realized he was more interested in sociology than theology and headed off to the University of Chicago. In graduate school, he became a student of Robert Park, who impressed upon him the power of collective action and need for creative conflict. He also got to know Jane Addams and her work at Hull House, an adult education center for immigrants in that city.

During that era, He learned about Danish folk schools. He raised enough money to travel to Denmark, dropping out of graduate school, never to return. When he got back from Denmark, he went to see Niebuhr, who raised money for Myles to start the Highlander Folk School, in the highlands of East Tennessee in 1932. The rest is history. This video shows what happened when a sociology student left graduate school at the University of Chicago and begin to practice public sociology, not as an avocation but as a calling.


Footnotes Logo

February 2004

Let 50 Flowers Bloom

by Monte Bute, Metropolitan State University, Minnesota

I attended my first meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in 1994. I went to Los Angeles as a middle-aged outsider, hoping to gain a little disciplinary knowledge from the natives. For five days, I was mesmerized by phenomena that were not listed in the official program—a perpetual display of Goffmanesque rituals of deference and demeanor.

These customs are by no means limited to this tribe of sociologists. All academic disciplines are defined by what Robert K. Merton called their manifest functions. The obvious and intended function of scholarship is the production and dissemination of knowledge. These professional practices also have what Merton identified as latent functions, consequences that are unintended and frequently unrecognized. The scholarly enterprise has one latent function that dares not speak its name—status stratification.

The professional culture and reward structure of our discipline have evolved gradually over the past half century and are now so much the taken-for-granted-reality that most sociologists are oblivious to their functions. Ralph Linton once observed that the last thing a fish in the depths of the sea would discover is water. The late Stanley L. Saxton was a particularly perceptive denizen of the deep. In A Critique of Contemporary American Sociology (1993), he noted, “The conditions of work for a small but powerful minority of sociologists at research universities need not and should not imprint the whole discipline” (p. 247). Unfortunately, they do. The practices of this disciplinary elite have produced a stratification system for both individuals and institutions within the profession of sociology.

Those who believe that the existing academic labor market is a meritocracy might well challenge my central assertion. Defenders of the status quo do not lament this latent function of status stratification. In fact, they claim that whatever prestige is bestowed upon these luminaries is richly deserved. What fairer system could be devised for the manifest function of knowledge creation than one that rewards “the best and the brightest”? In addition, I might well be accused of sour grapes. What am I but a provincial from the periphery who has failed to measure up?

It is not so much the reward structure that I question but rather how this social order manages to perpetuate itself. I question that an oligarchy of sociology departments at research universities holds sovereignty over the entire discipline. How does this occur? Let me give you just one example.

ASA is the premier professional association for the discipline. All ASA officers for 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 come from schools belonging to the Carnegie Foundation’s most selective category of research universities. Only 150 of nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States are included in this exclusive club. With just a couple of exceptions, the members-at-large on ASA’s Council for those two years also possess this rare pedigree.

Defenders of the status quo will argue that these leaders won competitive elections. True, but if we examine the Committee on Nominations for those two elections we would find that those doing the nominating are disproportionately affiliated with the same elite institutions as those whom they nominate. A similar analysis of the Publications Committee speaks volumes as to why all the current editors of ASA journals are also from Carnegie’s most restrictive list of research universities.

The manner in which this disciplinary elite defines and privileges a certain type of scholarship—and the “conditions of work” that it entails—is the linchpin of supremacy. The old bromide about how one gets tenure now holds true for promotion, external professional recognition, and even superstar status: publish, publish, publish. The highest rank accrues to those doing esoteric research, with subsequent authorship in prestigious journals and academic publishing houses. This “gold standard” diminishes other types of scholarship, reduces teaching and service to second-rate activities, and reproduces a regime of status stratification within the discipline. If most rank-and-file sociologists continue without question to concede this criterion, it only serves to legitimize the oligarchy’s dynastic succession.

An outsider to the disciplinary canon, Alfred Schutz, developed a sociology of knowledge that poses an alternative to this elitist paradigm of practice. He distinguished between scholarship aimed at the “expert” and scholarship directed to the “well-informed citizen.” American sociologists once saw the well-informed citizen as their primary audience. Conversely, the disciplinary elite today sees fellow experts as their only audience.

How do we restore sovereignty to that large majority of sociologists who toil under a more populist paradigm of practice but remain second-class citizens within the profession? The state professional association is one important venue. As an apprentice to the craft, I found congenial homes, first in Sociologists of Minnesota (SOM), and later in the National Council of State Sociological Associations (NCSSA).

I was welcomed by colleagues who refused to be constrained by the “expert” model but were engaged in scholarships of integration, application, and teaching. I was mentored by master teachers who prided themselves in conducting three to five sections of undergraduate classes each semester, devoted to developing a sociological perspective in students who may never take another course in the discipline. These folks practiced service the old-fashioned way; a “good citizen” took on those often-thankless tasks on campus and in the community that needed doing.

I am only saying aloud what has long been whispered. The intent of this essay is to initiate a conversation, a dialogue of equals. Sociology’s latent function not only divides us but also hinders our ability to engage wider audiences—we need to practice what we preach. We invite more of our research university colleagues to join us in state organizations, just as we have joined you in the ASA. Our local associations and practices might, once again, make our discipline relevant to the well-informed citizen. Let 50 flowers bloom.


August 11, 2014

With narrow work force focus, MnSCU has lost its way

Monte Bute

Monte Bute


Last year MnSCU, in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, held 50 “listening sessions” with over 500 employers statewide. “By listening to Minnesota employers,” Chancellor Steven Rosenstone said, “we can obtain a greater understanding of the state’s work force need.”

There were no such highly publicized listening sessions for students, faculty, staff, or local communities.

Because of this shortsightedness, “work force development” now trumps most other criteria for teaching and learning. While the chancellor and trustees would deny it, they seem to view MnSCU students as little more than merchandise, mass-produced to fill orders for its business customers. MnSCU now even has production quotas.

Produce leaders — or followers?

MnSCU students (and their families) understandably want to succeed and find good-paying jobs. But why must MnSCU measure success in the narrow terms of students’ fit with work force trends? Critical thinking, creative problem solving, and communication skills remain essential tools for leadership in a world desperately seeking transformative leaders — and yet MnSCU appears more interested in producing followers.

The University of Minnesota and private colleges like Carleton and Macalester realize that high standards produce leaders, managers and innovators, while mediocre standards create a workforce whose fate it is to follow the orders of others.

While there is no shame in working for others, shouldn’t we give all students a skill set to establish their own ceilings in life? Then let the market sort out the supply and demand for labor. Planned economies are notoriously inefficient.

The leadership qualities fostered by a traditional liberal arts education are, at best, an afterthought for MnSCU’s leadership. Some state university teachers actively seek to subvert this academic class system by providing elite education to the masses, despite a centralized juggernaut that has strictly utilitarian goals for most of its students.

Subtle inequality

As Louis Menand points out in a recent New Yorker essay, “This is why liberal education is the elite type of college education: it’s the gateway to the high-status professions.” Most parents would say that’s what I want for my children.

Like the barnyard critters in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” all Minnesota colleges and universities are equal, but some are more equal than others. Masking this subtle inequality with claims that merit determines outcome is disingenuous — learning opportunities in our state are inequitably distributed.

Most MnSCU students are as quick-witted as their counterparts at more elite institutions are. Regrettably, this intellectual potential and the opportunity to develop that gift are often a mismatch at MnSCU’s colleges and universities. As a result, the system diminishes these students’ life chances.

How have we gotten into this quandary, and why is it getting progressively worse?

MnSCU is, in fact, among the most centralized systems of public higher education in the nation. With best of intentions, former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill in 1991 merging three independent systems — state universities, community colleges, and technical colleges — into what has since become an über-bureaucracy.

Unintended consequences

Legislators were oblivious to the unintended consequences that might follow. What they had intended was a rational and efficient federation of relatively autonomous public colleges and universities. Instead, what history has bequeathed us is a Byzantine empire, with top-down management ruling local campuses like colonial outposts.

Established in 1995, MnSCU has become the elephant in the room for local campuses. Its staff has proliferated into nearly 400 administrative employees, imposing board policies and dictating procedures to its 31 college and universities — and their faculties.

The central office staff of MnSCU — many of whom have never taught a university class, graded a paper, advised a student, or written a scholarly article — spend far too many of their working hours as busybodies. They browbeat local campuses and their faculties with what Emerson called “A foolish consistency [which] is the hobgoblin of little minds,” while neglecting important matters like academic excellence and leadership development.

What can we do?

Students and their professors are the heart and soul of higher education. All other partners exist to support the teaching and learning process. MnSCU is no longer part of the solution; it has become part of the problem. Is MnSCU past its expiration date? At minimum, Minnesota needs a new chancellor and some fresh trustees.

Monte Bute teaches sociology at Metropolitan State University, a MnSCU institution in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

MnSCU reaches tentative deal with university faculty

By Mila Koumpilova

POSTED:   07/30/2014 12:01:00 AM CDT | UPDATED:   7 DAYS AGO

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and its university faculty union have reached a tentative contract agreement after almost a year of contentious negotiations.

Details of the settlement, which must be approved by the full faculty and board of trustees, were not released. Earlier this year, the two sides brought in a state mediator to help with the stalled talks, which also revealed a strained relationship between faculty and MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone.

The union has been an outspoken critic of Rosenstone. It sent a harsh critique of his performance to the board of trustees earlier this summer and bashed a new contract for him that had been reached quietly last November.

Steven Rosenstone (Courtesy photo)

Steven Rosenstone (Courtesy photo)

In a statement to its members, the union — the Inter Faculty Organization — said the mediator urged the sides to hold off on releasing details to the press in the coming days.

“However, we can say we think you will like it,” the statement said.

Rosenstone thanked the union’s new president, Jim Grabowska, and his negotiating team and said he “looks forward to partnering to implement our joint vision for serving our students.”

This spring, state legislators approved a $17 million annual increase in funding to MnSCU that is dedicated to employee compensation increases. Some lawmakers since have voiced frustration that the contract was not settled shortly thereafter.

If the faculty and board approve the contract, it will go to the Legislative Subcommittee on Employee Relations. If the subcommittee approves it, the agreement will go into effect, pending approval by the full Legislature next year.

The average university faculty salary at MnSCU now is about $59,680 for an assistant professor, $66,500 for an associate professor and $83,000 for a full professor, according to data provided by the union.

At MnSCU, seven universities and 24 community and technical colleges serve more than 400,000 students annually, including about 60 percent of the state’s undergraduates.

Sunday, Aug 3, 7:00 pm
St Anthony Main Theatre

Publicity photo

An Interview With Martin Light is a 51-minute video, documenting the only known interview with the assassin of Supreme Court Justice William Graham. The interview takes place inside Judson State Prison, where Mr. Light is awaiting a decision on his life or death sentence. In this interview, Mr. Light explores his possible motives and examines what role his state of mind, free will and Fate played in the tragedy. Produced and directed by Digger Kohler. Featuring Monte Bute, Jim Leinfelder, and Gary Warnke.

Are you a young activist sociologist who dreams of aging into an old activist sociologist? Here is a speech I gave to a few hundred young activists who were preparing to work for a weekend with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.monte-tutu-speech


New Tricks from an Old Dog


Good Morning and welcome to the 5th annual PeaceJam Slam. It is both an honor and humbling to give the keynote address for this important occasion. Look at you, more than 200 high school students, 50 college mentors and 50 professional youth workers, all preparing for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s visit in April. I applaud you.

Today I am speaking to you from my civic soul. I want to visit with you about three topics that have helped me make sense of this old dog’s life and times—history, biography, and civic action. It is my hope that these reflections might be of use to you as well as you work on your civic project and begin shaping the narrative of your own life.


The Slam that you are attending today is unlike any of the previous four. Today, November 3, 2007, the eyes of the world are quite literally upon you. Whether you yet realize it or not, you are making history. How many of you have had to take history courses in school? How many of you have dozed through most of those courses? Perhaps your slumber was justified.

All too often, we learn history as random dates and meaningless facts about what happened long ago to somebody else’s distant ancestors, folks who have been moldering in their graves for centuries. This is because we usually see history as a remote past. Much like the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis that once spanned the Mississippi, we no longer have adequate structures to transport us back to the meaning of those stories about events that once took place.

As citizens, we have poor historical memories because we have collectively forgotten that those events worth remembering are the very ones that, for good or ill, have shaped the present. Due to this historical amnesia, we fail to understand that significant events are occurring all around us, events that are history in the making.

Newspapers, as the old saying goes, are the first draft of history. On October 3, 2007, a news story about PeaceJam appeared in City Pages, a local alternative newspaper. The article reported that the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic institution in St. Paul and sponsor of the four of previous PeaceJam conferences, had decided that the previously invited Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was no longer welcome at their university. The reason cited was a Tutu speech from 2002 about the state of Israel that the university president had deemed to be “hurtful” to Jews.

The next day, the International Herald Tribune, an English language daily newspaper with global distribution, re-printed the story and it subsequently spread like wildfire from St. Paul to South Africa, from the United States to the United Nations.

Throughout October, Minnesota remained at the epicenter of this international controversy. During that time, citizens from around the globe—including a considerable number of self-identified Jews—unleashed a firestorm of discontent over St. Thomas’s refusal to host Tutu as a campus speaker. After a period of intense pressure, President Dease finally reversed himself and re-invited Desmond Tutu to the University of St. Thomas.

His decision, however, was too little, too late. PeaceJam had already moved its April conference and Archbishop Tutu’s visit to Metropolitan State University, a comprehensive public university located in the Twin Cities. All this political theatre was only the first act in a larger historical drama. Nevertheless, the news media still could not see beyond the initial controversy about “where” Tutu would speak.

It took two high school students who are here with us today to challenge this sensationalized coverage by the local media. They argued that the reason “why” the Archbishop will be visiting Minnesota deserves equal coverage. In an opinion article in theMinneapolis Star Tribune, Frederick Hubulla and Taylor Reed pointed out why Desmond Tutu is coming here: to join with university students in mentoring and teaching area high school students about peacemaking and the values and practices of democratic participation. Kudos to Frederick and Taylor; they are practicing the very civic skills that PeaceJam seeks to promote.


Today the curtain opens on Act II. PeaceJam Slam is not only preparing you for the Archbishop’s April visit, but we are also inviting you to join “The Global Call to Action.” For the next 10 years, the Nobel Peace laureates are calling upon you to work side-by-side with them as they address 10 fundamental issues of global significance. This worldwide campaign is nothing less than a manifesto for young people to change the course of history.

C. Wright Mills, a sociologist and intellectual mentor to the New Left during the Sixties, once wrote, “What ordinary men [and women] are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live.”

Seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history, ordinary people do not usually know what this connection means for the kinds of people they are becoming and for the kinds of history-making in which they might take part.

We sociologists seek to share with individuals and groups the truth of what Robert Kennedy once said: “Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change small events, and those acts can write the history of our generation.”

Paradoxically, when we first gain greater historical and political consciousness, we tend to fall into the opposite error of neglecting our private lives in favor of the important public issues of our time. Mills offered a remedy for this schism between our private and public lives—The Sociological Imagination.

A quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to develop lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves.


Let’s shift gears now, moving from the course of world history to the patterns of our own lives, from history to biography. Each of your unique biographies has delivered you, through some series of life events, upon this world stage, providing you an opportunity to become an actor in a series of history-making events. So here you are, ready to make history. But are you?

Peter Berger and Brigitte Berger, a couple of iconoclastic sociologists, once wrote, “One should be very careful how one chooses one’s parents.” Folks with a taste for riddles are fond of this sort of nonsensical directive: of course, you had no choice as to who your parents were. So what is their point?

Some of you in the audience had affection and nurturing, resources and opportunities; but most importantly, parents who were extraordinary role models. You are, in the words of the early 20th century American philosopher and psychologist William James, the once born—your lives have generally been smooth sailing, onward and upward. By contrast, some of us, in the lyrical language of the novelist Tillie Olsen, lacked “the soil of easy growth.” Despite our parent’s best intentions, they were too often unable to give us the psychological, economic, or spiritual sustenance that we needed to flourish.

“If one has been careless in the choice of parents,” the Bergers ask with tongue in cheek, “what are one’s chances of making good this mistake?” We need not be passive prisoners of our past. Despite the scars of a season or two in hell, we might still become what James called the twice born. By intentionally choosing how to think and behave, we can opt to improve our lives and, in turn, improve the world around us.

It is at our own peril that we fail to recognize the fundamental truth of karma. Many of the world’s ills, most of the sources of evil, and much human suffering stem from historical actors who have never confronted their demons, their intellectual, moral, and spiritual defects.

The Full Monte

Now let me take a few minutes to give you the “full Monte.” Negative karma was my birthright. When I was 16, I stood outside my local high school and extended my arm to display my middle finger in salute—I was dropping out. That act of defiance, coupled with a history of petty crime, led the town fathers of Jackson, Minnesota, to sentence me until age 21 to the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing. Only after begrudgingly graduating high school was I paroled early. After working a few months in the Twin Cities at a couple of mind-numbing jobs, someone put the harebrained scheme of going to college into my head.

I called up my father one evening and told him of my plans. He was unimpressed. College was not on my family’s radar screen. I asked if I could live at home for a time to earn some tuition money. His response was, “Do you remember how badly things went when you last lived with us?” Now my family had packed up and moved from Jackson to Albert Lea while I was away . . . but I eventually found them.

Father eventually relented. When I arrived in Albert Lea, there was only one job opening, and I soon discovered why it was available. The job was at the Land O’ Lakes turkey factory. My job was to pull the live turkeys out of the delivery semi, lift them upside down, and hang them eye-high by their feet as they went in on the conveyor belt for the kill.

Hoping to make up for lost time, I was desperately seeking a social life. Every day at the noon whistle, I rushed up to the lunchroom. I was expecting to meet some young women. No one ever wanted to sit with me. It took me a while to understand . . . flapping turkey wings had turned my black horned-rim glasses into a grotesque montage of white tape and turkey shit covered me from head to foot.

Nevertheless, I persevered and within a couple of months, I headed 20 miles down the road to Austin Junior College. It was a god-forsaken place with maybe 250-300 students and 15 faculty members, more than a few of whom were there by some cruel cosmic joke. We were housed—perhaps appropriately, given quality of the curriculum—on the third floor of the local high school.

Even here, I was academically overmatched. I always had a textbook on one knee and a college dictionary on the other, as I tried to navigate a rudimentary understanding of introductory courses in American and European history, literature, psychology, and humanities. At the end of my first term, I received a B-, a C+, and a C. Truth be told, it was close to Christmas and those two C grades were gifts.

Despite that early lack of promise, I soon became the reclamation project of Rod Keller, an erudite sage with contrarian impulses. He saw in me a potential that had escaped the notice of my parents, my teachers and, most importantly, myself. He prodded, he cajoled, and he flattered: Eventually, this liberal arts education awoke me from my slumber. I came to realize that for my first 18 years, I had been a sleepwalker—the lights had been on but nobody was home.

Looking back, that experience reminds me of the cataract surgery I had at age 60. Suddenly the grey, speckled fog that hung over the world metamorphosed into a brilliant, almost blinding array of vivid color. It took a few more years before I discovered the intricate connection between the pattern of my own life and the course of world history, and for the kinds of history making in which I might take part. Having seen that rainbow, I set off in search of utopia.

Civic Action

My brother, who became a Canadian citizen during the Vietnam War, recently retired as a labor organizer. Tony is now enjoying his waning years overlooking the bay in Victoria on Vancouver Island. He recently sent me a story he had run across, a tale that evoked a powerful sense of self-recognition for both of us. I want to share this little fable with you.

The Old Dog

A wealthy old woman decides to go on a photo safari in Africa, taking her faithful, elderly poodle named Cuddles along for company. Now the poodle is an old, old dog who is somewhat crippled up with arthritis, but he remains young in spirit and his mind is still razor-sharp.

One day the old poodle starts chasing butterflies and before long, Cuddles discovers that he’s lost. Wandering about, he spots a leopard heading rapidly in his direction with the intention of having lunch.

The old poodle thinks, “oh, oh! I’m in deep shit now!” Noticing some bones on the ground close by, he immediately settles down to chew on the bones with his back to the approaching cat. Just as the leopard is about to leap, the old poodle exclaims loudly, “boy, that was one delicious leopard! I wonder if there are any more to be had.”

Hearing this, the young leopard halts his attack in mid-strike, a look of terror comes over him, and he slinks away into the trees. “Whew,” says the leopard, “that was close. That old dog nearly had me!”

Meanwhile, a monkey who had been watching the whole scene from a nearby tree figures he can put this knowledge to good use and trade it for protection from the leopard. He heads off, but Cuddles sees him chasing after the leopard with great speed and the old poodle figures that something is amiss.

The monkey soon catches up with the leopard, spills the beans and strikes a deal for himself with the feline. The young leopard is furious and says, “here, monkey, hop on my back and see what’s going to happen to that conniving canine!”

Now, the old poodle sees the leopard coming with the monkey on his back and thinks, what am I going to do now? Instead of running, the dog sits down with his back to his attackers, pretending he hasn’t seen them yet, and just when they get close enough to hear, Cuddles says, “Where’s that damn monkey? I sent him off an hour ago to bring me another leopard!”

The moral of this story . . . don’t mess with old dogs. Street smarts and experience will usually overcome brute strength and treachery. The combination of bullshit and brilliance demonstrated by Cuddles only comes with wisdom and practice.

Becoming an Old Dog

Becoming an old dog has nothing to do with how old you are. “Age is not the decisive factor here,” wrote the German sociologist Max Weber. “What matters is the trained ability to scrutinize the realities of life ruthlessly, to understand them and to measure up to them inwardly.” Weber, with his profound sense of life’s tragic dimension, was himself an old dog.

Sometimes street slang best describes those events that shape both our biographies and the course of history. St. Thomas’s decision to withdraw an invitation to Archbishop Tutu is a good example of when “shit happens.” Now for all too many of us, when shit happens, we may get angry or become despondent, but because we feel incapable of fighting back, we resign ourselves to the fact that the powers-that-be are invincible.

“youthrive” is the upper Midwest organizational arm of PeaceJam. The group had actually known for months what the public only learned on October 3, that St. Thomas had lost its moral courage and was pulling the plug on Archbishop Tutu and the PeaceJam events. youthrive didn’t throw up its hands and meekly accept this setback as a fait accompli. No, the staff and student leaders of this group began to think like old dogs.

They begin to look around for a new partner. Metropolitan State had just declared 2007-2008 the “Year of Civic Engagement” and the university immediately saw PeaceJam as an opportunity to turn its words into deeds. The story within the story of this 5th annual PeaceJam Slam is that the leaders of these two partnering organizations have been practicing the very civic action principles and skills that you, in collaboration with your mentors, are going to begin learning by doing.

Niebuhr’s Prayer

Let me finish with a brief prayer that I try, not always successfully, to live by. We usually know this prayer from the popularized rendition used by self-help groups. Few know that the eminent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr actually wrote the original version. One of the wisest political thinkers of the 20th century, Niebuhr intended this counsel to be equally applicable to civic action:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

I organized my first anti-war march 40 years ago in a small Minnesota city. The picture projected on the large screen behind me is a photo of a protester confronting a police tactical squad just before they charged a crowd at the University of Minnesota. Although this picture is 35 years old, I had never seen this portrait of myself as a young activist until a photographer sent it to me last spring.

In those days, I had a foolhardy sense of courage. Crazy Horse, the visionary leader of the Lakota, had an inspirational phrase he used when leading young warriors into battle: “Today is a good day to die.” During my apprenticeship years, I self-destructively assumed that every day was a good day to die—I was utterly devoid of serenity and had very little wisdom. My own biography has been a perpetual confrontation between my character defects and Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer. Such is the fate of the twice born.

Perhaps the most difficult lesson any of us will learn during our time on this earth is this, “the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” And that may be the most distinguishing characteristic of an old dog.

w Tricks om an Old Dog