by Scott R. Olson, president, Winona State University
One of my most cherished memories is the time my wife, our daughters and I visited the U.S. Constitution Museum in Philadelphia, where the exhibits are organized around the preamble to the Constitution. As we approach Constitution Day on September 17, I find myself considering how, in many ways, universities like WSU are microcosms of our America. Like the Constitution Museum, our work is reflected in the Preamble.
We the People of the United States … Our constitution doesn’t say “peoples,” it says “people,” suggesting that whatever might seem to divide us is illusory or temporary. Though we tend to focus on our differences, we really have much more in common. This being an election season, it’s easy to predict that conversations will frequently focus on our disagreements, but the Constitution is one thing that unites us. At WSU, we try to uphold this commonness of purpose, starting with the first words of our mission: “a community…”
“… in Order to form a more perfect Union …” This suggests that we aren’t perfect, that we are aware of our imperfections and therefore strive to learn and improve. The word “union” suggests that we are stronger together than apart, which was one of the core arguments of the Federalist Papers authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. This is the concluding phrase of WSU’s mission: “… improving our world.” We always seek something better.
“… establish Justice …” I’m proud to say that WSU has many programs that focus on justice. The most self-evident one is our renowned criminal justice program, but studying history or political science or sociology here will give a broad sense of social justice, our social work program prepares students to enact justice, and our child advocacy studies program helps students defend a vulnerable population – our children.
“… insure domestic Tranquility …” A university may not seem like a refuge of tranquility these days, with violence erupting from the University of Virginia to the University of California, Berkeley. But I’m proud to say that we strive to create a culture where debate over big ideas is respectful, and competing ideas can coexist peacefully. Last year, our Warrior Debate program took on two big topics: “Is kneeling during the national anthem an effective form of protest?” and “Do guns make us safer?” with students taking opposing sides respectfully. We look forward to more Warrior Debates this year, and the public is encouraged to attend.
“… provide for the common defense …” I’m proud that WSU co-hosts the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) Eagle Battalion in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Many of our graduates have gone on to distinguished military careers, including WSU ROTC graduate James J. Mingus, who was just named Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division. In addition, our “Veterans House” on the corner of Main and Sanborn streets serves as a resource center and place to live and learn for our student veterans.
“… promote the general Welfare …” WSU encourages students to be great citizens both before and after they graduate. Our students annually give back about 250,000 hours of service to the community, and in 2017 were even recognized by Minnesota’s Secretary of State Steve Simon for registering the largest number of student voters. From there, our graduates go on to be influential leaders in their professions and in their communities.
“… and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity …” The U.S. Constitution did not initially secure liberty for all Americans, and some of its original flaws have led to lingering racism, sexism, injustice and inequity. As Angelica Schuyler sings in the musical Hamilton: “We hold these truths to be self-evident:/That all men are created equal./And when I meet Thomas Jefferson/I’ll compel him to include women in the sequel!” Two hundred twenty-nine years after the adoption of the Constitution, and only little by little and through hard-fought struggles, posterity has indeed enjoyed more of the blessings of Liberty. The same can be said of Winona State: it is more open and diverse now than ever. We have the highest success rate in the Minnesota State system for students of color — 86.9 percent and growing — in addition to the highest success rate for students overall (91.6 percent). But vigilance is still required. The U.S. and WSU are both still works in progress, and thoughts of our posterity should still guide our decisions.
So, while WSU neither ordained nor established this Constitution for the United States of America, we certainly affirm it — and live it — every day, and in all that we do. We invite our fellow citizens to join us in the celebration of the U.S. Constitution and the rights and freedoms it ensures.