"I think this must be heaven," Peter McPherson told the State News on July 3rd, "I think life is good." On sabbatical from his Presidency at Michigan State University (MSU), McPherson is not on a summer vacation. He's overseeing the economic restructuring of Iraq.

Since May, at the behest of President Bush, McPherson has been the point man in charge of "making Iraq safe for capitalism," as Fortune put it on June 23rd. He's managing Iraq's oil revenue, administering its central bank, and working to privatize Iraq's state owned enterprises. "It's fun to put together a country's budget," he told the State News, MSU's student newspaper.

Rather than release him outright, the MSU Board of Trustees cheerfully granted McPherson, the former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, a 130-day leave of absence. He's scheduled to return to the East Lansing campus in the fall.

Presidential sabbaticals can be quite enlightening affairs. In 1970 Haverford President John Coleman took one "to walk in other peoples' shoes." He dug ditches, picked up garbage, and sought to better understand the tough lives of physical laborers in America. He shared his experiences in his book, Blue Collar Journal.

McPherson, in contrast, stands with the white-collar rulers of an occupying army, eager to impose his political and economic vision on a captive nation. He's working around the clock. "If you don't do enough to create a political constituency for privatization now," he told Fortune's Jeremy Kahn, "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.

One of the few MSU faculty to publicly criticize McPherson is Lewis Siegelbaum, chair of History at MSU. In a July 10th State News letter to the editor, he took umbrage at McPherson's "heaven" remark, charging that it "smacks of gross insensitivity for the Iraqi peoples' suffering . . . . .. McPherson does seem to be having 'fun' putting together a budget, leaving his suit in the closet, and otherwise playing the colonial officer. I, for one, am ashamed."  

Nearly a century ago, social critic Thorstein Veblen wrote that, "the fortunes of war promise to leave the American men of learning in a strategic position. . . .if they so choose, to shelter many of the masters of free inquiry whom the one-eyed forces of reaction and partisanship oversea will seek to suppress and undo. . ." In other words, during war especially, the university should be a safe house, a place for free expression, where faculty and students are not subject to punishments for saying what they think.  

All well and good, but Veblen never said anything about the stresses that academic freedom must endure when it is the university president himself calling the imperial shots overseas.

It could be a teachable moment of historic proportions for MSU faculty. Students and scholars would greatly benefit from a close look at their president's activities, deciphering what it says about domination, freedom and democracy. Better yet, they could use the occasion as an opening to analyze the parallels between empire's arrogance abroad with empire's arrogance at home in Michigan and MSU. But East Lansing, where MSU sits, is a small town, a company town to some, and reaction, as we'll see, is common. Will faculty rise to the challenge?

"I think you can write a history of civilization based on freedom versus order and security," says McPherson, "to me it's almost a classic issue in a democracy."

Let's review McPherson's democratic scorecard.  


Here are a few recent items that reflect the "order and security" part of the equation.  

  • Undercover. In 2000, McPherson agreed to let MSU police infiltrate a registered campus student group, United Students Against Sweatshops (since renamed Students for Economic Justice), who were concerned about the World Trade Organization and unfair labor practices. The undercover operative, a young policewoman, was accidentally discovered by the students while directing traffic. At first McPherson denied having any knowledge of the affair, but later, under intense scrutiny, he admitted signing off on the covert action. Among the justifications for the deceit was concern about violence and terrorism by the group concerning an upcoming campus visit by the a World Bank official, in the wake of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. No evidence of terrorism was ever found.
  • Be Quiet. In April 2002 McPherson energetically supported General Motors in intimidating Lansing's Westside citizens (encompassing about 4,000 households) by pressuring them - as part of a 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 study. 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. In the end, there was no appeal.
  • Anti-union. In May 2002 the recently formed MSU Graduate Employees Union staged a one-day strike after continued frustration with the McPherson administration's negotiating positions. Currently the union is fighting threatened cutbacks in graduate assistant positions - in the wake of severe state budget cuts  - and various means to undermine the union, including, they charge, the hiring of undergraduate assistants to teach undergraduate courses to make up for lost labor after releasing grad assistants. In a letter to McPherson they charged, "No MSU student should pay tuition for a class that is taught by one of their peers. Why would a research university employ teachers with no degrees?" Among several other grievances is a petition that reads, "We the faculty, unionized staff, graduate students, graduate employees, undergraduates, and members of the MSU community hereby signal our disgust at the MSU administration's tactic of union busting by reclassifying, in breach of contract, dozens of graduate employees as instructors." Only a handful of MSU faculty have signed the petition, and indeed, they are not unionized.
  • Go Where Life Leads You: to Oil and Success. Basking in the idolatry of the Lansing media, McPherson's friend Vice President Dick Cheney implored students to "go where life leads you," at Michigan State University's graduation ceremony on May 3, 2002. The speech lasted all of 7 minutes. Listening behind him, in green cap and gown, sat McPherson whose own life was about to lead him into the middle of the Bush/Cheney energy wars, but there was no mention of that. On May 7, 2002 the U.S. Department of Energy announced that McPherson was appointed to chair of the DOE's powerful external advisory committee. Of course McPherson has done nothing to aid the release of the long sought after documents from Cheney's secret energy industry meetings, which last week's FOIA from Judicial Watch revealed there to be an unusual interest in the minutia of Iraq's oil production, pre-911. Several MSU graduates whose lives have led them to environmentalism noted the corporate dominance on McPherson's advisory board (including GM CEO G. Richard Wagoner, Jr.) and requested that ecologists like Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute be included along with Noel Perrin, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
  • Ignoring Election Results when they question Oil.  The MSU administration has refused to abide by a democratic student referendum in March 2003 that supported a proposed $5-per-semester tax to pay for renewable energy on campus. For weeks the MSU administration refused to release the results which were only reported in Lansing's alternative weekly, the City Pulse. After an appeal, the results were finally released: Pro-Tax: 3,765, Anti-Tax: 985. City Pulse's Dave Dempsey reported that, "The turnout was extraordinarily high for such an election, more than tripling the turnout at the last comparable balloting. That shows a high degree of student interest in paying for clean energy." Environmental advocates wrote to MSU Interim President Lou Anna Simon, pointing out, "MSU has a responsibility to demonstrate a respect for democratic processes. Students initiated this fee, campaigned for it, and approved it by a lopsided margin, yet the university refuses to recognize its validity. This sends an unfortunate message to the young people who attend MSU." One wonders how democracy will fare with McPherson in charge over in Iraq.
  • Elections have frequently been problematic at MSU, the nation's oldest land grant college. McPherson, like nearly all of the country's university presidents, was never elected by faculty or students (one of Veblen's lifelong complaints -- hell, he wanted to do away with administration altogether!). Still, his appointment by the MSU Board of Trustees in 1993 was tainted for its secrecy. McPherson's selection process was the subject of a successful media lawsuit by the Detroit News and the Lansing State Journal against the university for not abiding by Michigan's Open Meetings Act. The Board of Trustees considered  McPherson's candidacy rather late in the process and then interviewed and selected him in private.

    Corporate Warrior: from U.S. Agency for International Development Chief to Moo U Prez.

    McPherson's experience in capitalistic nation-building goes back two decades. Immediately after the 1983 U.S. invasion and rout of socialist-oriented Grenada, a tiny Caribbean nation, USAID got to work creating a capitalist market economy under its new director, Peter McPherson. As with Iraq, motives for the violence were vague.  

    U.S. development aid is used primarily as a device to help insure the stability of allies and promote capitalism, and that was no different under McPherson, who served as USAID chief from 1981 to 1987.  McPherson stood out however for his strong anti-socialist stance, 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.

    Said Minear, "What has distinguished the Reagan administration from its predecessors is not its preoccupation with East-West issues, but the degree to which its anticommunism has played havoc with humanitarian interests and traditions."

    Under McPherson USAID pushed privatization and marketization with a vengeance in countries as diverse as Poland, Hungary and Kazakhstan. McPherson became a point man in the cultural export of neoliberal activities that destroyed collective structures that threatened market logic.  

    Where is he leading Moo U?

    The cigar loving McPherson is a banker and a proud Republican. He is not an academic. He was chosen to lead MSU, in part, for his inside connections in Washington D.C.

    On November 17, 2000 he addressed the nation's Republican Governors with keynote speech that detailed his idea of  "a new culture for a new economy." Basically it entails the neoliberal ideal of subsuming education to the marketplace. "We should begin to think about human resources as a global resource that moves with opportunity, somewhat as has become the case with financial resources," he said. "Technology changes daily; winning states and nations will use universities and their spin-off companies - the very engines of technological change - to ensure that their populations are empowered and enriched by every change as it occurs," he said. "We are eager to serve."

    And today, with MSU's blessing, he's serving in Iraq, reasserting those high level corporate, governmental and Republican connections that the MSU powers-that-be are hoping will give it a strategic advantage in the new culture ahead.

    "The University on the Make," MSU's Vietnam record

    You'd think MSU might have learned something from its past. From 1955 to 1962 MSU provided academic cover to CIA agents stationed in southern Vietnam, operating under a multi-million contract with the federal government to bolster the dictatorial regime of puppet president Diem. MSU provided police training and weapons to the Diem forces.

    In 1998 John Ernst wrote a book about the period, Forging a Fateful Alliance, Michigan State University and the Vietnam War. The book includes a picture of Diem addressing some 4,000 MSU faculty and students on "Ngo Dinh Diem Day," May 15, 1957. Diem called the visit, "a very pleasant and warming home-coming."

    "Vietnam should have taught us that there are limits to what the U.S. is supposed to do in other countries," Ernst told me. "I knew 9/11 was coming someday, our lifestyle is predicated on the economic subjugation of the rest of the world. There is a reason we interfere across the world."

    Stanley K. Sheinbaum was the coordinator of MSU's Vietnam Project, as it was known. In a magnificent display of self-criticism Sheinbaum wrote the forward to a widely disseminated article published in Ramparts in 1966. The article, titled, "The University on the Make," deserves another look-see by today's collegiate generation. Here's a portion of what he said.  

    ". . .I am no less culpable of the charges I make herein, or those made in the following article, than are any of my former colleagues. Looking back, I am appalled at how supposed intellectuals - aren't academicians supposed to be intellectuals? - could have been so uncritical about what they were doing. There was little discussion and no protest over the cancellation of the 1956 elections. Nor were any of us significantly troubled by the fact that our Project had become a CIA front. . . .On the campus a pitiful handful of faculty - usually mavericks and often some of the best teachers - questioned MSU's role in assisting U.S. foreign policy," said Sheinbaum.

    The Diem/CIA connection contributed to MSU's vocal antiwar movement in the late 60s. Ernst said that, in the end, Vietnam changed MSU more than MSU changed Vietnam. Were that it had lasted.

    The Knowledge Factory

    Peter McPherson is credited by the MSU Board of Trustees with bringing MSU much closer to business interests and with establishing several new public private partnerships. That's part of the privatization ethic. But as Stanley Aronowitz makes clear in The Knowledge Factory, Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning (2000), the current business craze in academia "has fudged the distinctions between training, education and learning." As educational theorist Henry Giroux points out, "educators need to take seriously the importance of defending higher education as an institution of civic culture whose purpose is to educate students for active and critical citizenship. . . .markets don't reward moral behavior."

    Here are a few recent stories that detail the linkages between empire at home and abroad while revealing a small bit of what corporate MSU culture has wrought in the greater Lansing area.

    On June 23, in Sacramento California, over a thousand activists protested the Bush administration's attempts to impose genetically engineered crops on developing countries. The Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology hosted speakers from institutions like USAID, Monsanto, DuPont, the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority, and Michigan State University. MSU was just one of just six U.S. universities making presentations. One of the MSU papers discussed research on the rise of supermarkets in Latin America, on a panel called "Private Partnerships to Improve Market Infrastructure and Agribusiness Linkages."  

    MSU academics are busy globetrotting for their research, and serving the needs of agribusiness, but what about describing the impacts of the culture in its own backyard? The greater Lansing area around MSU lost 27 square MILES of Ingham County farmland between 1987 and 1997, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. That's practically the size of the entire city of Lansing (33.9 square miles)! Sadly, 44% of all local farmers are having it so tough that they worked off the farm 200 days or more in 1997. Some are even selling their land to speculators, contributing to the fast-car culture that encroaches onto their homeland.

    Now why aren't facts like these at the centerpiece of MSU curricula? For help in understanding, one can turn to Woody Guthrie, whose verse from his classic folksong, "This Land is Your Land," makes the point well. "As I was walkin, that ribbon of highway, I saw a sign there, said 'Private Property.' But on the other side, it didn't say nuthin, THAT side was made for you and me. . . ." Woody was trying to tell us that we all own the land. However we have been socialized to accept the idea that great vistas of land, perhaps our most basic natural resource, are not ours at all. Since we feel that we have no rights over it, and since we have little say over its use, we grow estranged from it.

    So corporations invoke their will on the land instead. Walmart - now the world's most profitable corporation (and a vicious anti-union shop to boot) - just established the right to build a megastore around the corner from MSU, winning a multi-year battle to build a 141,000 square foot retail outlet against the will of township trustees who spent $101,500 to stop them in a losing cause. But Ingham County's developers keep carving into the land with roads, factories, offices, malls and houses. The County was once 60% forest; now that's 17%. It was once 20% wetlands, today that's just 3%. It's good that Lansing's locals don't have to sustain themselves with local food. They'd never make it. Thank agribusiness and capital accumulation for that. The lie of the land is covered with sprawl connected via a mass culture of speed, shopping, cybers, sports and spectacle.

    MSU is quite open about its agribusiness allegiances.  It houses a unique Agribusiness Strategy and Management program whose curriculum "emphasizes the study of business and industry strategy and management within the context of the emerging global agri-food system. . . .[its] research and outreach programs focus on economic and management issues such as value-added processes, vertical coordination and supply chain strategies, and effective operations management of farm, agribusiness, and food firms." One doubts if their curriculum includes works like "Hungry for Profit, The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment," (2000) edited by Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster and Frederick H. Buttel.

    Apparently few, if any, officials from the Michigan Department of Agriculture have read the book. MDA is presently involved as the heavy in a widely publicized agribusiness-threat-to-farmer story that has jolted Michigan's environmental community.  

    For three years Gerald Henning, an 82 year old farmer, who lives about 70 miles south of MSU, has endured the stench from manure coming from the confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) abutting his land. After lodging several profane complaints expressing his frustration on the Michigan Department of Agriculture's Right to Farm complaint line, he was prosecuted this summer by Ingham County officials for making obscene phone calls. He'll be sentenced in the fall.

    The case has riveted Michigan's environmental community. Indeed, the local chapter of the Sierra Club itself had lodged several complaints against the sprawling Hartland Farms. The American Civil Liberties Union is advocating for Henning, arguing that the charge violates his First Amendment right to free speech, as well as his right to complain to government officials. You can learn more about the fight at

    A little digging revealed that the MI Commission of Agriculture which oversees the MDA, has five members, four of whom were appointed by former Governor Engler (an MSU graduate) and four of whom received their agribusiness-minded educations from Michigan State University. Gerald Henning can thank institutions like MSU for his troubles. Their agribusiness program provided the legitimation and tools to carve up Michigan land in service to CAFOS and chemical-industrial AG.

    Another agribusiness friend of MSU is Dow Chemical, which has its headquarters in Midland, just a hundred miles North of the MSU campus. Dow, after merging with Union Carbide in 2001, is currently under international rebuke for its refusal to assist the victims of UC's 1984 Bhopal disaster, the worst industrial accident of all time. It is also fighting a dioxin scandal in Midland after the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found dioxin levels 80 times higher than the EPA standard. The University of Michigan has an active "Justice for Bhopal" chapter, but there is none at MSU, where Dow is a major corporate contributor. In April, 1996 Dow gave MSU $5 million to build the Dow Institute for Materials Research, a 46,000-square-foot addition to the east wing of MSU's Engineering Building.

    Interestingly, in the Spring of 2002 Dow co-sponsored a seminar series at MSU's Detroit College of Law, called, "Creating Sustainable Cities in the 21st Century." On March 19th the talk was titled, "Abandonment of the Cities." There was no mention that day of the irony that Dow Chemical had abandoned the city of Bhopal.

    Teaching Empire

    Domination is the glue of empire, democracy its bane. That's true from the far reaches of the colonies all the way back into the belly of the bully nation itself.  

    At the outskirts of empire Peter McPherson and the Bush administration are now considering whether or not to pledge some of Iraq's future oil and gas revenue as collateral to secure long-term reconstruction loans before a new - more democratic - Iraqi government is constituted to vote on the proposal. Congressman Henry Waxman is strongly against it. "Unless a reconstituted Iraqi government or the U.N. Security Council authorizes the plan, it appears to violate international law," said Waxman, as reported in the July 11, Los Angeles Times. Over at USAID, Andrew Natsios, head of USAID - McPherson's old job -  wants NGOs in Iraq to make it clear that they are "an arm of the U.S. government," or risk losing their contracts, according to Interaction, a network of 160 NGOs. That's an affront to those non-governmental organizations that purport to be independent and neutral.

    Back in the belly of MSU, domination holds the upper hand as well, with an unelected university president; covert operations; intimidation of local citizens fighting GM; an outraged graduate student union; a mushrooming administration; severe budget cuts; social amnesia; hyper-specialization of knowledge to the neglect of stepping back to look at the big picture, and much more. As one faculty member confided to me "the culture of the university is to make a lot of little kingdoms and turf wars. Historically the university does not reward people for collaborative efforts."

    University administration would likely not reward a concerted faculty collaboration to organize a "Teach-in" on McPherson's Imperial activities and what they mean for democracy, freedom and higher education. But it is badly needed. Such an endeavor might lead to a deeper exploration of the larger university culture, one that is hard to discern. As my MSU anthropology colleague and friend, the late Dr. Harry Raulet, liked to say, "culture is that which is behind that which is behind." And what's embedded in the deep structure of MSU are the rudiments of empire.

    A group of leading educational theorists, often referred to as the critical pedagogy school have led the way in conceptualizing several important issues and guideposts for critical practice around the reclamation of higher education. Among the school's spiritual progenitors is the recently deceased Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Peter McLaran, has developed a terrific web page at UCLA's Graduate School of Education that details a wealth of resources for critical pedagogy. See it at:

    Yet, aside from a few critical remarks on McPherson published here and there in greater Lansing, all is mostly quiet on the MSU front. The question is, when, if ever, will critical intellectuals at MSU arise from their slumbers and connect the imperial dots for students? If they don't, a free-thinking education will be killed in the cradle for another platoon of young scholars. Just as have so many democratic initiatives been laid to rest in mid-Michigan and across the world, courtesy of Uncle Sam and Spartan MSU.


    Brian McKenna is the former Health and Environment columnist for Lansing's City Pulse newspaper, where he originally reported on several of the issues above. He is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology at MSU and he writes regularly for the Ecology Center's >From the Ground Up, and for EJ, a magazine of Environmental Journalism at MSU. In 2001 three environmental studies he wrote on water, asthma and food quality were suppressed by Lansing's Ingham County Health Department, where he worked at the time. They were later published by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group. See the PEER studies at:

    Brian is currently writing a book on the on the political ecology of mid-Michigan - birthplace of the automobile and site of the country's oldest land grant college - tracing its transformation from Native American times to colonialism, and then describing it's role in forging empire today.