Steve Bahls and Sister Joan Lescinski haven't shied from this political moment.

The respective presidents of Augustana College in Rock Island and St. Ambrose University in Davenport spent much of this past week on a student recruiting tour in Mexico. In more normal times, their trip with administrators from 22 other private schools to a bridge-building summit in Guadalajara wouldn't be much to write about.

Competition is fierce among liberal arts schools, such as Augustana and St. Ambrose. Both history and pre-med degrees are offered by hundreds of institutions. Surely, it's Bahls' and Lescinski's jobs to strike out abroad and champion the merits of their small, private schools in the middle of the country.

But these are not normal times, particularly when Mexico is involved.

The U.S. president likens Mexican immigrants to rampaging barbarians. Better hide your daughters, folks. 

President Donald Trump has blasted free trade agreements that, by most economic measures, benefit corn-rich states, such as Illinois and Iowa. And, now, he's asking for billions in funding to pay for border wall, which basically no one thinks will achieve much of anything. 

Bahls -- who once told me about his efforts to "thread the needle" on matters of politics -- clearly recognized the moment in which he inhabits. That's unsurprising, as Bahls and Lescinski are a well-known observers of local, state and federal politics. 

The two college presidents from Quad-Cities pick their spots. And, in perhaps one of the most divisive moments of our time, they didn't shy away.

In at least one instance last week, Bahls went on Guadalajaran television with a message utterly rejecting Trump's rhetoric.

"#You are welcome here," declared the sign Bahls held proudly during the interview.

Bahls' message to would-be Mexican students is, in fact, a direct response to the Trump era. He might have made the trip if another president sat in the White House. But his refrain, his message of tolerance was birthed from Trump's presidency.

Make no mistake, there's an economic component to Bahls' trip. Illinois is in shambles. It's never clear if the state will make good on the grants it promised to its students, costing even private schools like Augustana millions. Illinois' students are flocking out of the state.

Foreign students pay full fare. That's good for any college or university, private or public. Recruiting outside the U.S. is nothing new.

But Bahls, Lescinski and their colleagues could have chosen France or Lithuania. They could have headed to Argentina or Egypt. All have college-age students. 

No, they chose Mexico, a flash-point in America's battle for its identity. Bahls and Lescinski opted to spend day after day trumpeting their schools' openness and commitment to diversity. 

Maybe few things speak to this political moment than the growing outreach to Mexico, often unapologetic repudiations of rhetoric coming from the White House. Milwaukee's Marquette University, another school with religious affiliations, last month produced a video entitled "You are welcome here." 

Tourism officials are doing it. Big agriculture is increasingly questioning Trump's state trade policy, which could cost the corn-belt billions in exports. 

And, now, the presidents of private liberal arts schools in the Quad-Cities are flying to Mexico to unabashedly challenge the White House. 

Protest can take many forms. 

Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at


Editorial Page Editor, Quad-City Times