Michigan State University received national notoriety as a result of a 1966 Ramparts magazine cover article that described it as a "University on the Make." The Ramparts cover depicted the wife of South Vietnam's dictator/President Diem, as an MSU cheerleader, with green garb and white pompoms.

When MSU invited Iraqi war strategist Condoleeza Rice to deliver its commencement address on May 7, the cheerleader image was resurrected. The cover of Lansing's popular alternative weekly City Pulse featured Condi Rice as a giddy MSU cheerleader on May 5th.

Throughout the past half century, MSU has continued the work of empire, in a manner as profound and arrogant as ever. Between 1955-62 MSU provided academic cover to CIA agents and provided police training and weapons to Diem's regime. Until a few months ago, the MSU president, who once was a minion to those pressing the Iran-Contra affair in the Reagan White House, was directly helping to run an imperial war in Iraq.

In May 2003, after President Bush came calling, the MSU Board of Trustees released McPherson to serve 130 days, to "oversee the economic restructuring of Iraq." Fortune Magazine's Jeremy Kahn put it more bluntly as "making Iraq safe for capitalism." In a June 23rd, 2003 article he quoted McPherson, the former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, saying, "If you don't do enough to create a political constituency for privatization now, then it will get killed in the cradle." For his free market zeal, one of McPherson's own team members accused him of believing in an "ideological nirvana," according to Kahn.

The Bush war team has been accused of much the same by former generals. But a Big Ten university?

For many Rice's visit was to be the icing on the MSU cake.

In anticipation of the visit, twenty-four MSU faculty placed a full-page ad in the City Pulse protesting Rice's appearance, claiming it "only compounds the mistake that President McPherson made." They charged that Rice engaged in "systematic deception of the American public (and world opinion) about the reasons it sent troop to war Iraq to make war." Charging it was a campaign-related event, they said that inviting representatives of the Bush administration "does a disservice to this university and its graduates."

Berl Schwartz, 57, the City Pulse's editor and publisher, said that several faculty had gotten cold feet at the last minute, asking that their names be removed from the ad, fearing reprisals. Like the Bush administration, fear of retribution is a common occurrence under the McPherson administration, which has a history of keeping dissenters under surveillance.

Optimism of the, er, intellect?

Oblivious to the irony of her own cheerleading, Rice began her homily by saluting MSU's sports teams. "The football and basketball fan in me is thrilled to be at the home of the Spartans."

One should not dismiss Rice's obligatory reference to the town's warriors, the Spartans. For therein lies a portal into important mythical relationships at work.

The Greek Spartans were the model for Thomas Moore's 1516 bestseller Utopia, whose pages reflected the ancient Spartan home as authoritarian, hierarchical and repressive; not a place of creativity and free expression. "The principle focus of the [Spartan] community was on the use of war for self-preservation and the domination of others, " writes Paul Cartledge in his The Spartans, 2002. .

It's not an accident that in the face of a widely unpopular war our national consciousness has become transfixed with that failed ancient empire (or with Greek warriors in Hollywood's Troy), or that a powerful state-related university would cast itself in that image.

Fittingly Rice's next line was homage to a big Spartan war supporter. "Peter McPherson, President of MSU, Thank you for the work you did in Iraq, helping to build a free economy there."

About that time a handful of students walked out, joining about 100 protestors cordoned off in a free-speech zone, several carrying copies of the City Pulse. Some were chanting "Hey, hey, ho ho, Condi Rice has got to go." One student held a sign that said, "Graduation = Celebration, not Indoctrination."

Joining the demonstrators was MSU Trustee Colleen McNamara who said Rice's visit was politically calculated to give Bush an advantage in a swing state.

Rice never addressed the protestors directly, instead keeping to her script, a speech peppered with projection. "The first responsibility of an educated person is to be optimistic," she said, "cynicism and pessimism are too often the companions of learning. . . . and the more we learn about history's failures and cruelties, the more our minds can be tempted to despair. But for all our problems today. . .the world is a better, more hopeful place than it ever has been."

Abu Ghraib, an illegal war, over 10,000 - mostly civilian - deaths, international rebuke, the Middle East aflame, more than 1.5 million personal bankruptcies in the U.S. last year (a record), all unmentioned. So much pessimism, apparently.

Condi again talked up "optimism" on the new June 4th Bush/Cheney campaign commercial, titled, "Pessimism." The ad saluted the Commander-in-Chief's optimism. Kerry was reduced to a "pessimist." The timing suggests that the MSU visit was part of a multi-media ad campaign to repeat the Republican mantra "optimism."

Rice's equation of dissent with pessimism, is designed to substitute any notion of critical inquiry with a pathology. It belittles the idea of what education is all about.

Education is supposed to have some critical distance from corporate interests and values. As Henry and Susan Giroux put it in their important new book, Take Back Higher Education, (2004), "higher education. . . is one of the few spheres in which it becomes possible for teachers and students to act as critical intellectuals and address the inhumane effects of power, forge new solidarities across borders, identities, and differences, and also raise questions about what a democracy might look like that is inclusive, radically cosmopolitan and suited to the demands of a democratic global public sphere."

After Rice's starry-eyed remarks, the commencement descended into Republican intrigue. Peter McPherson took to the podium and stunned the crown by announcing his resignation, effective January 1, 2005.

The news upstaged Rice and the graduates.

It was an ignoble retreat for a man who wanted to be there for MSU's Sesquicentennial in 2005, celebrating its stature as the nation's oldest land grant university, at 150. But his departure now appears to look like CIA director George Tenet's bow out - either imposed or related to the war's bad turn. McPherson's Iraq involvement had soured some on the Board of Trustees, though McNamara was the only one to go public. The official reason given was "time to move on." Of course it may have been something else altogether. An unemployed McPherson in January 2005 would be available to begin work as Bush's new Treasury or Education secretary should Bush be re-elected, something McPherson is helping to happen.

When word of his deed reached the protestors outside there was jubilation, a real sense of optimism. Suddenly the world looked better. Perhaps Rice was right after all.

Company Town 101
The Cultural War at Home

McPherson's 10-year tenure was not in the Spirit of '76. Hierarchy, not democracy was the rule of the day. The faculty mostly let him have a free ride, and the town's daily newspaper, the Gannett-owned Lansing State Journal, rarely printed a critical word on him.

Indeed, McPherson's MSU became a central pillar in a company town culture ruled by a rigid hierarchy abetted by a culture of silence, often imposed.

During his reign, McPherson's police secretly infiltrated a campus student group protesting unfair labor practices against a visiting World Bank official, engaged in union busting activities with the graduate student union, and suppressed the results of a democratic student election on a renewable energy tax, then ignored the results. The local Gannett paper was silent about the last two episodes. The first one - undercover cops - it did not blame on the MSU president even though he later admitted he had known about the affair.

In 2002 he fired Bobby Williams, the African American Spartan football coach, leading to charges of racism. A campus demonstration of 200 sponsored by the Black Student Alliance was mounted against the President. But the Journal came to his rescue. In its November 10th edition, the Journal chastised MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson for playing "the 'race card'" calling his comments a lapse "of judgment and leadership." The LSJ then called on President McPherson to publicly refute the charge, which the LSJ claimed to have no basis in fact.

The Journal also failed to investigate one of the biggest national stories of its kind, McPherson's appointment to chair the U.S. Department of Energy's powerful external advisory committee on May 7, 2002. His appointment came just days after hosting Vice President Cheney at the MSU 2002 commencement.

McPherson will spend his remaining time in office pushing heavily for a $1 billion cyclotron for MSU's physics Department. He has noted approvingly the cyclotron's ability to model nuclear explosions, something also noted on the DOE website.

He will also work behind the scenes for moving MSU's medical school to his hometown area of Grand Rapids - a big Republican stronghold. It's the home of Betsy DeVos, head of state Republican Party, Gerald Ford and Amway. Amazingly it was this medical school effort that caused serious and sustained criticism from faculty, politicians and Lansing State Journal for the first time in his tenure.

Not surprisingly, McPherson will not, apparently, come to the defense of David Wiley, MSU's Director of African Studies who has taken the courageous stance of fighting an attempt by Republicans to force African Studies departments to accept military intelligence and CIA funding as part of the Title VI language and area studies grants. Stanley Kurtz (with Stanford's Hoover Institution) has publicly attacked Wiley and the directors of the Title VI African Studies Centers throughout the U.S. - in National Review online - arguing that they are leftist professors out to "blame America first". He encouraged a campaign against them.

In the weeks following McPherson's resignation, the Gannett owned Lansing State Journal ran a stream of cover stories ("Pursuing the next Challenge") honoring him, citing the campus building boom, his business principles and his Iraq service. When former President Reagan died, the journal used that as yet another opportunity to laud McPherson on its front page of the Sunday, June 6th edition, with a photo of him and Reagan under a headline, "McPherson remembers Reagan as 'extraordinary.'"

McPherson was Reagan's USAID chief from 1981 to 1987.

But the Journal said nothing critical about McPherson's war record, which led him and the Reagan administration to direct large amounts of assistance to Central America, then undergoing insurgencies in El Salvador and Nicaragua. USAID bilateral development assistance to Central America soared by 207.6 percent in the first Reagan administration, according to Larry Minear, director of the Humanitarianism and War Project. In contrast the total USAID bilateral development assistance to Africa declined from 23.5 per cent in 1981 to 19.8 per cent in 1988, reported Minear. Later, over the Reagan administration's objections, Congress increased Africa's share to 31.7 per cent for 1989.


McPherson and his top MSU administrators often prefer silence to democratic action. In a well-covered media episode that revealed the essential core of Lansing's power structure, McPherson energetically supported General Motors in intimidating Lansing's Westside citizens (encompassing about 4,000 households) by pressuring them - as part of an April 2002 Lansing State Journal petition to which he lent his signature - not to file an air pollution appeal, as was their right under the Clean Air Act. GM's neighbors had complained for decades about the foul solvent-smelling odors, only to be told by GM and city officials that they were imagining them. The media was generally silent about it and Michigan State University - despite housing two medical schools, a nursing school and leading toxicologists, epidemiologists and pulmonologists - has never done a health study of the problem. This, despite the fact that General Motors had the legal right to emit 3,359 tons of toxic pollutants per year into the atmosphere at its factory there. And despite the fact that the highest incidence of asthma in Lansing occurs around the factory.

The Michigan Environmental Council's James Clift pointed with incredulousness the line at the bottom of the proclamation that stated, "this space provided in the community interest by the Lansing State Journal." "Whether or not a facility complies with the Clean Air Act is in the community interest," he responded.

The MEC suffered threats, protests, media scrutiny and shock jock outrage for its stance. The LSJ petition was coordinated, in part, by MSU's Governmental Affairs office.

One casualty of solid reporting on this and similar local events was Lansing's City Pulse. Gannett decided to inaugurate a new newsweekly called "Noise" a faux-alt paper dedicated to youth consumption. Its ad rates are cheaper than the Pulse and it is distributed free and adjacent to the Pulse in over 400 boxes throughout the greater Lansing area.

The Journal is just a tiny part Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the world. And, as Richard McCord documented in his excellent 1996 expose, "The Chain Gang, One Newspaper versus the Gannett Empire," Gannett has in the past engaged in ruthless practices to obliterate alternative community voices. The book tells how McCord, as editor and publisher of the nationally distinguished weekly Santa Fe Reporter, successfully fended off Gannett's "Operation Demolition" when it moved into town, something that Salem Oregon's "Community Press" had failed to do.

City Pulse's Berl Schwartz, who has never approached GM for a dime in advertising ("it's part of what makes us alternative") is now facing such pressures from Gannett. He has been handing out copies of McCord's book. Seeing his role as a community educator, Schwartz says he would have already been in the black were it not for Noise.

Daniel Sturm, the City Pulse reporter who wrote the Rice story, is a recent arrival from Germany. He is shocked at the lack of critical coverage of McPherson and the town's power-wielders like General Motors. "I have no idea why other Michigan newspapers (not to mention local network TV) weren't able to review McPherson's legacy in a more critical light. Local media instead chose to base their coverage on the lauding portrait depicted in MSU press releases and from interviews with regional business leaders, rather than from reviewing the opinions of students and faculty, or admitting any of the shady details in McPherson's actual biography. I believe that ignoring the existence of significant criticism is ethically deplorable, both from a professional and a personal standpoint."

We all live in a company town, to one degree or another. The irony is that a platoon of highly educated faculty in college towns across the country are generally silent about local political and cultural stories - which have everything to do with education -- , deferring to corporate media instead. Citizens lose when the intelligencia direct their critical faculties to a specific disciplinary problem and ignore the disasters all around them.

On June 18th the MSU Board of Trustees selected MSU Provost Lou Anna Simon to become the next President of the Spartan University. It was a surprise announcement from on high, since faculty and others had expected input in a national search for a new president. Simon, 57, has been a loyal MSU administrator for 30 years. She has a degree in mathematics and educational administration. "People are horrified by the process," said Sheila Teahan, with MSU's chapter of the American Association of University Professors, "it really demonstrates the board's complete contempt for the faculty." The board was happy, however, applauding its 8-0 unanimous decision.

"The importance of education is not measured by quietism and a moronic appeal to being happy," said Giroux in an interview, "but by critical inquiry and a search for truth and justice. One doesn't smile in the face of injustice, one acts to understand the conditions that produce it and then eliminate it."