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When Macalester College started up in 1885, it had just five professors and six students

photo of macalester college building
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
After bobbling between locations, including the elegant Winslow House, Macalester found a permanent home on forty acres of land between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Founded in 1874, Macalester College began as a Presbyterian college with few resources and only six students. The private liberal arts college became known for its rigorous academics and commitment to internationalism, multiculturalism, and service to society.

Macalester College, named for benefactor Charles Macalester, was founded in 1874 by Minnesota education leader Edward Neill. After bobbling between locations, including the elegant Winslow House, Macalester found a permanent home on forty acres of land between Minneapolis and St. Paul. The surrounding sprawl was named Macalester Park. The college’s first building, the east wing of Old Main, was completed there in 1884. It opened for classes the following fall to just five professors and six students.

The college’s beginnings were rocky, slammed with falling enrollment and rising debt. Yet president James Wallace helped the college gain financial footing with a vigorous fundraising campaign. Figures like George Dayton, James J. Hill, and Andrew Carnegie chipped in to keep the college afloat.

James Wallace’s son and daughter-in-law, Dewitt and Lila Wallace, followed to become some of Macalester’s most generous and consistent donors. The Reader’s Digest founders helped the college through the Great Depression and many other financial setbacks in the decades to follow.

Though founded as a nonsectarian college, Macalester has always held ties to the Presbyterian Church. Early on, its religious focus attracted Presbyterian students and led many to work in religious fields after graduation. Charles Turck, president from 1939 until 1958, began to shift the college toward a more religiously welcoming and less explicitly evangelical atmosphere in the 1940s. He also began to define the set of values for which the school became known: internationalism, multiculturalism, and service to society.

Macalester’s ties with internationalism reach back to 1893, when the college admitted its first international student. Many domestic students also travelled abroad during those early years, though their trips were often fueled by a desire to evangelize or provide humanitarian aid. By the 1930s, the curriculum had expanded to include subjects like international law and additional world languages. In 1950, Macalester became the first Minnesotan college to fly the United Nations flag. In the 2010s, international students made up about 12 percent of the student body, and 60 percent of students studied abroad during their college career.

Multiculturalism, too, has a long history with the college. In 1915, Catharine Lealtad became Macalester’s first African American graduate. Esther Suzuki followed as its first Japanese American graduate in 1946. In 1969, Macalester joined the Expanded Educational Opportunities (EEO) program. EEO admitted more than 300 students of color before approaching an end in 1975, a year after substantial budget cuts sparked a twelve-day student protest.

In its earlier years, Macalester focused heavily on religion and the sciences. The curriculum expanded to include the arts when women were admitted in 1893. A school of music opened soon after. Later, during Turck’s presidency, the college focused on preparing students for work with a variety of vocational programs. Macalester is known today for its liberal arts curriculum, which was introduced in 1964.

Outside of classes, students can play for a sports team or choose from a variety of campus clubs. The student newspaper, the Mac Weekly, has published student work since 1914. WBOM (now WMCN) became Minnesota’s first campus radio station in 1948. In honor of its Scottish roots, the college also offers free bagpipe lessons to any interested student. Macalester celebrates the anniversary of its founding each year with a game of pushball, first played on campus in 1914.

In the 1990s, Macalester’s Reader’s Digest shares rocketed in value. The college has used the funds in the decades since to remodel much of the campus, as well as diversify the faculty and strengthen academic programs.

Notable alumni include Kofi Annan, Danai Gurira, Joan and Walter Mondale, and Tim O’Brien, as well as members of the music groups Sounds of Blackness and Hüsker Dü. Notable professors include former vice president Hubert Humphrey and Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Correction: This article’s headline has been corrected to accurately reflect the year classes began at Macalester and the number of faculty and students at that time.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Barry Peterson on 09/10/2018 - 08:08 pm.

    I officially attended Mac for one year — 1980-1981, but withdrew due to complications involving depression and autism. As a high school student, I was an ace in YMCA Youth in Government activities in Minnesota, and attended, as a gifted high school student, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at University of Minnesota while studying as an honors student at De La Salle High School in Minneapolis (Nicollet Island).

    Despite my awkwardness during my freshman year, I made a lot of friends, and hung out at the campus chapel and became friends with Chaplain Russ Wigfield (who has since passed away), and also with President John B. Davis, Jr. For both, we were friends until weeks and a few months before their passing — and forever in my heart.

    I enjoyed my classes at Macalester College and found both the international environment and the broadly multi-cultural environment very interesting. Already one long-involved in public service to the Shoreview Area YMCA, Macalester College greatly infused within me the notion that I must become a servant to society — whether in business, academics, diplomacy, or otherwise.

    As Walter Mondale moved on to University of Minnesota, I eventually landed there and graduated twelve years after my friends of Macalester College’s Class of 1984, of which I remain a proud and active member, and have assisted in two of our class reunions. I have studied history, and became fluent in Spanish, Norwegian, and French, while also trying Italian, Mandarin, and Japanese (I am only fluent in English at, now, age 56).

    Macalester College is a great place to study, make friends, and spread our wings. While I officially attended during only 1980-1981, friends and professors continued to invite me to return on nearly a daily basis, until Macalester College’s Dean of Students, Mary Lundblad, learned of my free classes and probably that I had a hard time accepting that my dear friend, Alejandra, was betrothed to a son of a plutocratic Bolivian family.

    Soon, I landed in Norway and studied for a year at Elverum Folkehogskole (a UNESCO Heritage Landmark), in Elverum, Norway, where I met 1984 Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa — as our class was heavily involved in anti-apartheid activities on behalf of students in South Africa and Namibia. The Archbishop and I later exchanged letters in the 1990’s, as he was in therapy for cancer, in New York, and I was taken by his devotion to peace, racial-blindness and humanism, and to democracy.

    It is unlikely that my life would have been so full of thoughts about our international community, on a first-hand basis, were it not for both my friendships on campus with students, and with Chaplain Russ Wigfield and President John B. Davis, Jr., and their spouses. Greetings to Joy Davis if she reads this.

    Please consider attending Macalester College if you are a bold thinker, an idealist, a savant in any field, or simply a really great student with interests in sports and making friendships with people from all over the world. Your time-investment, and the adventures that come with it, will be with you through your dying moment.

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