To bring these issues from the abstract to the practical, Thomforde, the colleges 10th president, related a personal story. Last winter, his placement of an anti-war sign in front of his house spurred discussion over the ripple effects such a public stance might have on campus dialogue.
"Can the president, as president, have opinions?" he asked. "If I take that stand, does it then become difficult for people to speak up for the other point of view?"
Thomforde received over 100 e-mails on the topic, many from people "worried that I had stifled the discussion," he said. In addition, he said, "some of the [Regents] board members were upset, although nobody threatened to fire me."
Reflecting on the episode, Thomforde said he has drawn several lessons. "The college as a whole needs to have a variety of viewpoints," he said. "For the President to initiate the conversation may not be the right thing."
In response to a students question about political balance in the classroom, Thomforde acknowledged that "theres probably a middle to liberal bias [among St. Olaf faculty]," but that St. Olaf does not ask questions about political beliefs during the hiring process. "We do want to be more inclusive as a community," he said. "The real danger is to have people teaching who dont care."
During the discussion, President Thomforde also addressed the so-called "campus bubble" phenomenon and its effect on political awareness and debate. "We are in a physical place of isolation from some places, but not from issues," he said. "Some people might say Here we are, 35 miles south of Minneapolis. I guess we dont have to worry about the issues. But we do."
As an example, Thomforde referred to the recent $87.5 billion bill passed by Congress funding military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. "If they do away with Pell grants to pay for that, then it does affect you," he said.
Thomforde also noted the value of off-campus studies in fostering connections between St. Olaf and the broader world. "One of the great gifts we have is our international studies program," he said, adding that other ways to counter isolation include watching the news or reading a newspaper. "By presidential edict, no one here is allowed to feel isolated," said Thomforde, eliciting laughter from the audience.
Regarding last years controversy over whether the St. Olaf-hosted Human Sexuality Conference should be allowed to emphasize pro-homosexuality viewpoints, Thomforde said that "not every single event needs to represent the full spectrum." Drawing a comparison, he remarked that while singer Madonna would be welcome to give a concert at St. Olaf, "nobody expects her to perform at the Christmas Festival."
During the dinners closing remarks Thomforde asked, "How can we make sure that St. Olaf is a sanctuary where men and women with a variety of opinions can talk without fear of reprisal?" Throughout the discussion, he emphasized the importance of creating an atmosphere for fair political debate on campus while encouraging students and faculty to act on their beliefs with integrity.
"Part of integrity is trying to understand the other viewpoint," he concluded, and at tt 68," President Thomforde knows a thing or two about having a unique point of view.
The Political Awareness Committee, headed by Janine Wetzel 05, sponsors dinner debates and political discussions in the Valhalla Dining Room at 6:00 pm nearly every Tuesday. For more information about upcoming PAC events, visit their website at www.stolaf.edu/orgs/sga/pac.