Thursday, August 22, 2013

The last word on KWOC

If you're a first year, transfer, or not a Mac student and you don't know what KWOC is, Sean Ryan at the Mac Weekly wrote an excellent article about some of their activities toward the end of last semester. For KWOC's side of the story, you can check out the link to their Tumblr page in the sidebar of this blog.

As we head toward the new school year, I want to reiterate my opinion that KWOC should wind down their campaign against Macalester's purchasing card contract with Wells Fargo. This is not a new opinion coming from me, but I feel it is important to address the issue again because KWOC activists have announced they intend to launch a three year campaign to force PBR and the college to end their business relationship with Wells Fargo. If they continue their campaign for the next two or three years, it seems clear they will achieve little except dividing the student body and damaging Macalester's reputation.

President Rosenberg has made it clear that he has no interest in ending the Macalester-Wells Fargo purchasing card arrangement at this point, saying in a meeting with KWOC organizers that:
“I have a great deal of respect for the two people [Wheaton and Walker] who spent so much time thinking about this decision ... Your tactics have shown that you don’t understand me. I will never make a decision based on increased application of pressure or threats.”
Perhaps even more damningly, more than 200 Macalester students signed a petition organized by Mac GOP activists supporting the administration's decision to retain the Wells Fargo contract. When your campaign has resulted in more than 10% of Mac's hyper-liberal student body is siding with the campus Republicans over your student activist group, it should be clear you went wrong somewhere along the line. This article is intended as an exploration of where KWOC went wrong and what everyone can learn from their mistakes as we enter the new academic year.

Before I dive into that, however, I need to say something. I truly respect KWOC organizers as people. One of my closest friends at Mac is a KWOC organizer who participated in the blockade and was disciplined for her actions. She's a brilliant student, a hard worker, and a dedicated person. I have nothing but respect for her. I have no doubt that she and her friends do everything they do with the best of intentions. But on this issue, we do not agree.

It's also important to emphasize this: I do not support Wells Fargo. My money is in a little bank that operates in the Pacific Northwest and invests in my hometown's community. Wells Fargo shares some responsibility for the current foreclosure crisis and I have no love for them. There's a reason they got sued by the Justice Department and paid $175 million dollars to settle allegations of racist lending.

Now, back to the point: where did KWOC go wrong?

Selective Truth Telling

The number one thing I have not appreciated about KWOC's campaign has been a noticeable trend of organizers and activists providing only carefully selected facts to students, alumni, and the media. Sometimes they've gone further by, intentionally or unintentionally, making direct factual misstatements.

A small example would be the assertion, posted on their Facebook event page, that President Rosenberg fled his office rather than confront KWOC activists during the sit-in. KWOC wrote:
After President Rosenberg saw us in his office this morning, he skipped town for two days to go to Chicago, and most of the rest of the Macalester administration moved out of their offices!
Oh man, PBR fled rather than talk to them? That makes him sound like a jerk. Except that wasn't what actually happened. The Mac Weekly reported:
President Rosenberg responded to the sit-in by giving students jelly beans before leaving on a previously scheduled trip to Chicago. He was expected to return to St. Paul on Thursday.
So, in reality, Rosenberg gave the students jellybeans (even though they urinated in the hallway of his office) and then left on a pre-arranged trip. Not exactly the same thing as "skipping town".

A more serious example would be the total failure to mention the fact that moving Macalester's purchasing card contract to Sunrise Community Bank would actually mean moving Macalester's purchasing card business to US Bank. As the Walker-Wheaton report noted:
Our discussion with Sunrise Community Banks made it clear that we would be working with US Bank if we were to move to an alternative purchasing card platform. This is because Sunrise’s pcard program is run by Elan, a wholly owned subsidiary of US Bank. When we asked the Sunrise Community Bank team about daily operations for the p-cards, the Elan representative made it clear that we would be dealing with her organization, not Sunrise.
Although KWOC members had participated in every step of the decision making process with Walker and Wheaton, I did not become aware of the Sunrise-Elan-US Bank connection until this report was emailed to me by Sean Ryan at the Mac Weekly for comment. Up until that report was released, KWOC had excluded all mention of Elan and US Bank from their campaign, making this April 24th exchange on Facebook especially ironic:
Twin Cities civil rights activist: "Good Job - can US Bank be next?"
KWOC activist: "I'm not sure on Mac's connections to US Bank but we'll look into it!"
In fact, KWOC had been and is actively promoting the creation of such a connection. If KWOC members knew that Elan was owned by US Bank, they should have disclosed that information to everyone from the start. If they didn't, they probably should have done more research on the policy change they were suggesting.

KWOC activists have also made misleading statements to the media. After some organizers were put on disciplinary probation for blockading Weyerhauser, KWOC activist Alex Bartiromo '16 was interviewed by Minnesota Public Radio. He told MPR that the probation "hurts students academically", saying:
Some people can’t apply for internships and can’t complete their majors. (And) study abroad is part of academics.
But this wasn't true either. The only student who had a study abroad planned was allowed to go, and none of the disciplined students were planning internships. I haven't heard of anyone who is unable to complete their major. The administration's Q&A on KWOC for alumni put it bluntly:
None of the students involved in the KWOC protests are being denied participation in study abroad or opportunities for internships
In other words, Bartiromo's statement was completely incorrect. I have no doubt that KWOC organizers made statements to the media with nothing but the best intentions. But this kind of misinformation spread throughout Twin Cities media outlets, like in this Pioneer Press article.

The lesson here for future student activists at Mac? Tell your peers the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If you aren't sure of something, say so. In normal political campaigns, many voters are operating in a low information environment and so selective truth-telling can be effective (think attack ads). But Mac students are not voters, and in my experience like to have all the facts before forming an opinion. Selective truth-telling and self-serving misstatements only inspire mistrust among your fellow students and undercut your cause in the long run.

Over-The-Top Stunts

A lot of people have had a lot to say about the sit-in conducted by student activists, and I believe the bottom line is that the issue did not justify the occupation of Weyerhauser. Nonetheless, the college handbook explicitly allows occupations, and whether or not the issue justifies a sit-in is inherently subjective.

However, blockading the entrances to the building is a clear violation of college policy, and KWOC organizers at the time knew so. It's also disruptive to the staff who work in Weyerhauser, who have nothing whatsoever to do with the politics of banking or foreclosure. In his final meeting with KWOC, Rosenberg explained the impact the barricade of the Weyerhauser had on Macalester's employees:
Rosenberg said that many staff members expressed a great deal of frustration over the Weyerhaeuser barricade on Thursday morning. He specifically mentioned hourly workers who did not know if they would be paid and employees who wanted to file “hostile work environment” claims against the group in response to their actions.
I'm sure some would dispute Rosenberg's version of events, but it is supported by the Mac Weekly's reporting about the barricade:
At least two staff members directly approached KWOC students and criticized their current actions at the building. They specifically mentioned their inability to accomplish work-related tasks because of the group’s barricade.
The other stunt that sticks out in my mind as going too far is the "balloon stunt". On March 27th, KWOC activists dumped balloons with leaflets inside them from the balcony of the student center as people were eating below in Cafe Mac. Popping balloons startled and annoyed a number of people who were trying to eat lunch, myself included. Nick Contino helpfully outlined for KWOC activists all the other reasons this was a really bad idea:
I take issue with the cafe mac balloon stunt earlier today for three reasons: 
1) Some people are allergic to latex and don't appreciate it raining down onto them with no notice. 
2) The balloons went behind and onto the food serving counters. Someone's lips blew up the balloons and someones hands touched them. These unsanitary balloons should not have been touching the food. 
3) There is currently a huge mess of paper and latex in cafe mac that the underpaid workers will have to clean up in addition to everything else they have to clean each shift. Food service sucks enough as is.
The lesson here is to think about what you are doing before you do it. How will this action impact the people in your community? Will it raise awareness or simply inspire hostility? What are the potential consequences? I know a person with a latex allergy who will end up in the hospital if they come into contact with it. Is dispersing leaflets worth the risk of putting someone through a systemic allergic reaction? Probably not.

Intentionally Damaging Macalester

Some KWOC events have seemed less aimed at raising awareness than simply agitating the college's administration and damaging Macalester's overall reputation in the community. This comment in response to concerns about the balloon stunt is somewhat discouraging:
...the point of this action was to promote a call-in to Brian Rosenberg. We need to annoy him, not students.
The leaflets in the balloons had the number for Mac's administrative offices on them, and KWOC also did their best to spread that number to activist groups all across the country via social media. If the goal of the campaign was simply to annoy administrators, it apparently succeeded. From the Mac Weekly article on Rosenberg's final meeting with KWOC:
The office phones of the president and his administrative staff have been placed on forward this past week in response to the number of phone calls they have received in relation to the college’s contract decision. Rosenberg said that many of the calls were abusive and qualified as harassment.
In a similar vein, KWOC repeatedly placed of signs inside The Link like the one below that directly targeted campus tours conducted for prospective freshmen.

Some of my friends who lead campus tours for PFs complained that these signs made their jobs harder, which made them dislike KWOC. More broadly, what was the point? Did KWOC activists want to encourage PF's to not apply to Macalester? That's kind of how it came across to me.

A more recent example has been the campaign to convince alumni to withhold donations from the college after 17 KWOC members were put on disciplinary probation. KWOC organizers and their supporters among the alumni have launched an online petition asking alumni to withhold donations from the college. They also hosted a Q and A session for alumni during the June 2013 reunion, presumably to promote this effort.

Comparisons to the Holocaust aside, I don't see how this effort is likely to change anything. The online petition wants the administration to reverse the decision of the Conduct Hearing Board, which as I understand it is supposed to be an independent disciplinary body and is made up of two students and two faculty members. It's not clear at all that the college administration has the power to reverse this decision, and even if they did, it would set a precedent that the conduct board's decisions are subject to being overruled by the administration at will. Macalester's's FAQ for alumni made it crystal clear that it would not set this precedent:
Will the college be reconsidering its decisions on placing students on probation as a result of recent media attention?  
No. Students have the right to appeal Conduct Board decisions and several students have exercised that right.
As one alumni put it: "I feel not donating can only do nothing, or hurt past, present, and future Mac students." Attempting to convince alumni not to donate only acts to lower Macalester's standing in college rankings (which are based in part on how many alumni donate) and reduce available funding for financial aid, classes, and campus activities.

Us Versus Them

When Sean Ryan emailed me to ask for a comment about KWOC for his article last spring, he referred to me as a "foremost intellectual conservative" based upon Facebook posts I had made arguing against KWOC. I am not a Republican, and don't consider myself conservative. In my hometown, I was one of the most liberal voices and helped organize local Democratic party events. But I understand how Sean Ryan has come to this conclusion, because most of the rhetoric from KWOC has revolved around painting anybody who opposes their movement as a conservative and/or friend of big banks.

Of course, some Macalester's tiny group of campus conservatives do in fact oppose KWOC, and have taken steps to make their voices heard. On the petition I linked above, two of the first signatories are well-known as members of Mac GOP, and I know for a fact that Mac GOP members started, promoted, and delivered the petition to the administration. But many of the people on that petition, including myself, are liberals or centrists. Around half the signatures on the petition are anonymous - I speculate that these are from students who feared what the label "conservative" can do to your social life at Macalester (I have seen people post on Facebook that they'd refuse to date someone who identified as Republican).

KWOC is partially responsible for creating this atmosphere of fear. The rhetoric on their literature, their Facebook page, and their Tumblr essentially divides the student body into a dichotomy - the liberal, social-justice loving forces for good, and the evil conservative Banksters who side with and defend Wells Fargo's foreclosure practices. There is no room left in this rhetoric for people like myself, who don't support Well's Fargo's lending practices but also don't support KWOC's strategies for changing them.

What Now?

I'm tired of engaging in back-and-forth discussions on Facebook about KWOC, and with this post published, I hope I will no longer feel the need to do so. This post is intended to be my final word on the subject before I leave for my study abroad.

I know that KWOC activists are absolutely committed to protecting the rights of homeowners, and I think there are a number of ways that they can continue to go about this. They could directly protest Wells Fargo offices, or take more direct action to prevent foreclosures as they have in the past. Any of these routes would be more constructive than continued targeting of President Rosenberg and the school's contract with Well's Fargo. That campaign has lost the trust of the student body and the college administration has hardened against it. The best thing for KWOC and Macalester at large would be to end it now.

Update 9/2/13: A reader who had taken a picture of the original KWOC signs sent it in, and I added it to the post.


  1. This is brilliant. Also, I have a picture of that sign. I will try to send it to you.

  2. I don't care enough to respond to most of this post, but BALLOONS? Seriously? I know Macalester has a reputation for getting butthurt about nearly anything that happens, but BALLOONS? Are these the same balloons that are used in carnivals and kid's magic shows and birthday parties? The ones that are literally just a weightless plastic container of air? Say all you want about KWOC's potentially disruptive other acts, but when you bring helpless balloons into this, you're just trying too hard to find things to complain about. If anything, having a bunch of balloons dropped into Café Mac during another grueling winter meal was a source of amusement and entertainment. This is not something to go all social activist over.

    1. Let it never be said I don't publish my critics.

  3. you (and also kwoc) should probably stop referring to it as a wells fargo contract, it's really just a bank account