On one of the last evenings of my freshman year at Michigan State, I stood with friends on the roof of South Case Hall, looking east across the vast length of the campus. The sun was setting behind us, lights were turning on, and the thought of leaving the people we’d learned to love that year was hard to accept. “I’d like to say something poetic,” someone said, “but it’s so damned ugly.”
At that moment, MSU had not yet been a university for 20 years, and with only a couple of exceptions, no building in view was more than 15 years old. The trees were small spindly things, and the unfortunate architecture of the 1960s was everywhere. All evidence of a place that had grown from 5,000 students in 1955 to almost 45,000, with most of that growth occurring in just one decade.
Ugly? Perhaps. The beauty of the campus all lay north of the river, and we lived south. But ugly or beautiful, we all came back, and came back, and came back. In the end, undergrad, a Ph.D.program, teaching courses, and being a parent, I spent at least a dozen years intimately connected to the university.
I didn’t just become a fan — watching games from whatever far-flung places I lived — I absorbed the Spartan culture and felt very lucky to have had a land-grant education.
So when I found myself on Monday night, February 13, 2023, in a hotel room in Austin, Texas, having just come from an educational conference meetup where I’d talked to old MSU friends, I stared at the television as a big chunk of my heart was being shredded. And I cried. As so many others have said, there was no surprise. America’s violence-acceptance culture does nothing when six and seven-year-olds are slaughtered. Why would anyone be surprised when 18 and 19-year-olds are murdered without motive?
But surprise or not, the heartbreak was real. When you know everywhere the news feeds show, when you have walked those paths, hung out in those buildings with your friends, when you have sat in that Union lounge working both as a kid and as an adult, when your child and his friends have done the same, the violence slams its way into you, and it is impossible to disconnect.
The campus of Michigan State always seemed a place of incredible safety. Now, I’m in no way blind to all the issues. Young women felt at risk in the 1970s and still do. The upper administration seemed clueless and irresponsible then, as it has for most of this century. I could list it all, from tolerating sexual abuse to abandoning non-revenue sports and the students who participate in those. But I don’t have to. We all know the failures.
Still, the campus always seemed a place of incredible safety. Intellectual safety, creative safety, the safety to find yourself and become the person you could be. I came and was offered the chance to reinvent myself, as so many of us were. As Arielle Anderson, Alexandria Verner, and Brian Fraser were. As John Hao, Guadalupe Huapilla-Perez, and three other critically injured students were. As 50,000 current students and untold former students were. We all arrived looking for a place to grow, and we found that in a university dedicated to learning through doing, learning through service, and learning alongside as diverse a group of peers as anyone can find anywhere.
...the land-grant university provided a unique example of America’s commitment to educational democracy. It also exemplified the ways university research could be applied to the service of the country, counteracting the idea that a college should be an “ivory tower.”
Steven Diner's words echo the Morrill Act’s goal, “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
And whether I was studying art or education, whether I was in what we then called the “Men’s IM” or standing on a Kresge Art Center balcony, whether I was failing a math class or showing off my senior thesis in an art gallery, whether I was playing all night pinball or wandering the Beal Gardens on a spring morning, Michigan State and the Spartan community gave me the things that matter.
The horror of February 13 is that so much has been taken from every student on campus or in town that night. I only began analyzing the safety of any room I entered when I became a New York City cop, but for these students, that will stay with them for a lifetime. They will never feel the campus — ugly parts and beautiful parts — in the way I could. They will never get to imagine a future without fear.
I have incredible faith in the generations of today. Millennials, GenZers, and the Gen Alphas now arriving are smarter, more caring, more connected, more capable and more committed to humanity than those of us who came before. And I have faith that they will turn the nightmares we have let assault them into real causes of action. They will go to work now on that better world, and we, the Spartan Nation, must support them.
In my saved images is a map of the Michigan State campus from 1955. It’s a tiny place, with “experimental farms” occupying most of what we now know as the university. Around three sides of the map is a long quote from the Morrill Act. Along the bottom is a different quote:
It is for us the living to be dedicated here to the unfinished work.
The next time you are anywhere in the world wearing anything Spartan-identifiable, and someone inevitably shouts, “Go Green,” answer “Go White” — and promise your dedication to the hard work we have all learned to do.