For roughly the first one hundred years of its existence, this university was a relatively quiet place. Invisible in the larger scope of things, in its guises as Michigan Agricultural College and Michigan State College, MSU mostly limited itself to farming endeavors. It was small and relatively unknown, an academic unit in which few things of consequence happened to drown out the sounds of fertilizer hitting soil and cows mooing in peaceful harmony. Then something happened. Former MSU president M. Peter McPherson remarked on this change in a September 2004 speech at the Beaumont Tower, when he kicked off the university’s 150th anniversary.[ouch3]
“People should be proud of what MSU has done –the values this university has embodied– the opportunity for discovery, knowledge and our international presence,” he said.
This presence extends beyond school T-shirts paraded around other continents by students in study abroad programs, as McPherson’s involvement in America’s reconstruction of Iraq shows. In the past 50 years, MSU has dabbled in international politics several times, involving itself with some of the biggest global issues of the 20th century, including one of America’s most infamous losses.
Warm Homecoming for a Dictator
Between 1951 and 1971, MSU extended a helping hand to 35 overseas technical assistance projects, providing services like training Colombian agricultural schools and Brazilian business schools. The most publicized project was projected over the Pacific Ocean to South East Asia. There, from 1955 to 1962, the Michigan State University Group (MSUG) resettled refugees and consulted the construction of police and public administration bodies, all important contributions to reconstructing Ngo Dinh Diem’s Vietnam.
MSUG was the product of political science professor Wesley Fishel’s personal relationship with Diem and longtime MSU president John A. Hannah’s successful efforts to expand the university academically and financially.
“There’s a certain expectation that the president will represent the institution and translate what we do here for the community and our stakeholders beyond the boundaries of campus,” President Lou Anna K. Simon said on her website, and Hannah did just that.
A strict anti-communist with strong ties to powerful Republicans in Washington, D.C., Hannah cooperated with Harry Truman in his Point Four program (by training international agricultural colleges); left MSU for 19 months during 1953 and 1954 to work as Dwight Eisenhower’s assistant secretary of defense and became the head of Richard Nixon’s Agency for International Development after retiring from the university in 1969. During his tenure at MSU, it grew from 6,000 to about 40,000 students, and gained some international recognition, prompting Fortune Magazine to call him “an astute politician and a skillful manager.” MSUG became his most controversial project, similar to other technical assistance contracts in that it reaped great capital benefits- $25 million- but different given whom was involved.
Diem visited East Lansing twice. On Wednesday, May 15, 1957, named “Ngo Dinh Diem Day” by Michigan governor G. Mennen Williams, he received an honorary degree from MSU and spoke in front of 4,000 faculty members and students, whose afternoon classes had been canceled by Hannah to ensure a large turnout. There, Diem was celebrated as the savior of Southeast Asia.
Diem called the event “a very pleasant and warming homecoming,”
He would never experience that feeling again. His relationship to the United States deteriorated as he allocated more political power to his family, corrupting Vietnam into a dictatorship dependent on American military assistance and thereby validating the future communist upsurge in the eyes of the international community. Finally, after a couple of critical articles by MSU professors in the New Republic in 1962, he cut the ties to MSUG.
The project generated immediate capital gains, which in part were used to erect new buildings like the International Center. It lasted until 1966, before a backlash came, induced by a series of articles in the leftist magazine, Ramparts, which accused MSU of hosting a CIA unit in Vietnam as a part of MSUG. Contributing writer David Horowitz, now the editor of FrontPage magazine and a critic of the whole leftist spectrum ranging from liberals to radicals, but then an influential participant in the New Left movement, attacked the university in Ramparts October 1968 issue:
“In university service to the empire, the grimier field work is often left to unprestigious social climbers like Michigan State University,” he wrote. “MSU’s now notorious CIA cover operation in South Vietnam – writing Diem’s constitution, training his police, supplying him with arms – was merely part of the school’s long globe-trotting pursuit of plush, parvenue academic prominence for itself and for its guiding genius, president John A. Hannah.”
In a national landscape increasingly critical of the growing political disaster that was the Vietnam War, MSU lost a lot of goodwill due to their part in the conflict. Afterward, the school toned down its international involvement, especially in sensitive issues, focusing mainly on agricultural assistance.
Vision of Greater Equity
Standing out as an exception to MSU’s cautious strategy was its divestment from South African companies in 1978, following seven years of campaigning by students and faculty members from the South African Liberation Committee (SALC). The university was one of the first in America to remove investments from companies involved with the apartheid government; between 1977 and 1985, 55 others joined the boycott, increasing pressures on American businesses and politicians to engage in anti-apartheid activities.
MSU officials take great pride in the university’s role in the international protests of the racist politics. For example, in October 1999, following the publication of South African democratic activist Ahmed Kathrada’s book on his longtime imprisonment, McPherson told the MSU Press:
“Kathrada’s donation of the [collected materials from his struggle to the university in 1996] and the book that followed from the MSU Press are visible evidence of MSU’s long-standing involvement in South Africa and our commitment to democratic values and vision of a world with greater equity.”
However, some claimed that MSU’s divestment was not complete, and the SALC continued to apply pressures on the administration in the 1980s. In 1986, for example, they built a shanty in front of the administration building as a protest, and students discussed the topic lengthily on campus and in The State News. Nevertheless, by at least partially pioneering the divestment movement, MSU set a precedent in using university finances as serious international political tools.
The Business of MSU
MSU increased its international presence in 1993, when it slighted more academically qualified presidential prospects in favor of McPherson, a former executive vice president at the Bank of America and administrator of the Agency for International Development. McPherson served as a special assistant to Gerald Ford in the 1970s, as Deputy Secretary of Treasury under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and his role in George W. Bush’s current reconstruction of Iraq is well known.
The parallels to Hannah are obvious: neither founded their presidencies on strong academic backgrounds, both had powerful friends in multiple Republican governments, and both were involved in the most controversial and internationally politicized military interventions of their times. But while Hannah led the university into Vietnam, McPherson brought it in to Iraq: he took a six-month leave of absence in 2003 to help set up a new currency and central bank in the country, and now he’s gone permanently to pursue other goals. Also, he hasn’t introduced Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi on campus yet. With McPherson, MSU didn’t embark into international affairs—international affairs came to MSU.
With his departure comes the ascension of Simon, a longtime member of the university community, but no political power figure. Despite being a provost since 1993, her methods remain unknown to students as they wonder what lies ahead. In her opening statements on her Web site, president.msu.edu, posted at the coming of the new-year, Simon seems customarily vague:
”We must remain ever-cognizant of our historic obligation to be the model and leader in fostering the concepts of civility, cultural understanding, respect, and responsible citizenship in our rapidly changing, increasingly diverse and internationalized world. ”
She inherits a university which annually sends more than 2,000 students abroad in academic programs and which takes part in many international projects besides agricultural training. MSU is involved with the Afrobarometer, which measures the social, political and economic atmospheres in Africa; it cooperates with the Vietnamese Cantho University to reduce poverty in the Mekong Delta, and it’s part of a project to formulate a strategy for cutting poverty and hunger in Africa significantly by 2015. The list is long, and even if MSU doesn’t manage to fall into another political controversy, its current international presence is enough to lend some credence to Simon’s following hyperbole:
”Celebrating our sesquicentennial, we look back at just how far this university has come in 150 years. From a small scientific agricultural college among the fields on the outskirts of Lansing – a new idea in higher education and uniquely American experiment – to the world-class, globally-engaged powerhouse that we are today, it’s really been an amazing journey.”

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