History and the future will accenutate U’s mistake

I went beyond my immediate colleagues and discovered the true passions of GC.

From 1964 until 2001, I taught literature of various kinds in the English department of the Twin Cities branch of the University. I chose Minnesota over several other locations for several reasons, one of which was my fascination with its origins as a “land-grant institution.” As a white female southerner, I knew a lot about exclusive systems. The idea of founding a school with the mission of making the best education available to all residents of a state, regardless of external circumstances, seemed idealistic and fair all at once.

During the anti-Vietnam protests, I met some students from a unit within the University unfamiliar to me. They said they were enrolled in the General College. They were older women back in school after having children or running households, young people from families in which no one had ever made it past high school, yet who yearned for a life they were sure would be enhanced by having a degree from the “U of M” as they proudly called it. There were even a few black students quite clear about who was fighting and dying in disproportionate numbers in the jungles of Vietnam. I liked these “irregular” students because they had clarity about some of the issues most important to me like race, class and gender. So when we stopped blocking traffic on Washington Avenue Southeast outside of Coffman Union and were being maced by Minneapolis police, I began asking about General College.

Responses from members of the English department varied from “I don’t know what it does” to “It’s a place for kids who can’t get into the University through regular channels.” In the face of these unhelpful comments, I decided to go beyond my immediate colleagues. Eventually, I met faculty members and support staff, all of whom shared my pedagogical philosophy as well as my broader academic politics. From that time until the present, I have been utterly sure that the General College is that portion of the University most in tune with the original idea behind making the school a land-grant university. Students who transferred into the College of Liberal Arts and found their way into my classes about black women writers or feminist criticism or, toward the end of my career, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender literatures and cultures, performed extremely well in virtually all instances. Some went on to graduate and professional school and all represented the core values inherent in theories of universal education, something this country has at some times held in high regard.

When I heard a few months ago that the University’s president and the Twin Cities campus approved provost were proposing the closure of General College, I felt like the speaker in John Milton’s famous elegy, “Lycidas,” when he says, “Once more, oh ye laurels, and once more ye myrtles brown.” Twice in the past, central administrators attempted to close General College, but supporters on campus and in the community argued passionately and persuasively to keep it alive, because now more than ever it constituted the short-changed by various levels of education. When I asked friends still working at the University if such efforts would again change minds if not hearts in Morrill Hall, I was told in no uncertain terms that they would not. This time, it was going to happen; one colleague even went so far as to say, “It’s a foregone conclusion and the ‘debate’ and ‘hearings’ are just window-dressing.” This move is part of a long-range plan to make Minnesota one of the top three research universities in the world, but no institution of higher learning can hope to reach such an albeit hubristic goal in today’s world by closing its doors to faculty researchers and student learners engaged in developmental learning at its very best.

On June 10, the Board of Regents approved the recommendation from the top administrators, and General College was officially dissolved. I feel anger and sadness and a sense of frustration at our refusal to learn anything from history. The fact that all faculty members from General College have been offered positions in other collegiate units is not the point. General College was never about protecting faculty lines; it was about moving the forgotten and the invisible from the margins to the center of intellectual life in this state. Many students who might well have gained entree to the University through General College will now be forced to look elsewhere, a fact that will be a blessing and strength for the community colleges and universities that enroll them. But the “flagship” of Minnesota’s higher-education grouping will be weakened by their absence and stripped of the vitality that diversity always brings to any privileged enterprise.

Just before the vote to disband one of the finest parts of the University, I spoke with a young colleague who works with undergraduates doing internships in and around the Twin Cities. Many of his charges, who tutor writing in inner-city high schools, reported to him at their weekly seminar that their students were saying things such as, “My sister/cousin/brother/uncle got a foot in the ‘U’ by going to ‘GC,’ so I was planning on doing the same but a wall’s gone up now and I’m shut out forever.” Yet, once more, indeed.

Toni A.H. McNaron is a distinguished teaching professor emerita. Please send comments to [email protected]