Panel examines diversity: Faculty highlight campus demographics

On Thursday, April 24, St. Olaf organizations arranged a panel for students, administrators and faculty to discuss the hot topic of race. The panel consisted of Assistant Professor of English Jennifer Kwon-Dobbs, President David Anderson ’74, Teacher Educator in Residence Maria Kelly, Vice President of Enrollment and College Relations Michael Kyle ’85 and Associate Professor of Theater William Sonnega. When asked how they came to be part of the panel, many said they hoped to bring a new perspective on the topic of diversity.

Panelists were allotted two minutes to answer student questions. Students were asked to write their questions on cards and send them down their row for an emcee to read.

One question asked how St. Olaf’s racial diversity has changed in the last ten years and how it will continue evolving during the next ten years. In response, Anderson presented graphs comparing St. Olaf to 24 other colleges. The number of international students at St. Olaf compared favorably to schools like Carleton College and Gustavus Adolphus College. St. Olaf’s number of domestic multicultural students has increased from 7.2 percent in 2003 to 15.9 percent in 2013. The college’s plan is to continue increasing by one percent each year.

Soon the discussion moved from the number of students of color to the quality of these students’ experiences at St. Olaf. Kwon-Dobbs noted that it is “important to see the narrative.” After warning the emcee that she would take longer than two minutes, Kwon-Dobbs read from her notebook something that she had prepared for the panel and the students.

The room fell quiet as Kwon-Dobbs shared her experience sitting in a classroom when a professor shared a personal collection of photos showing posed mutilated and decapitated bodies of Korean people.In the poem she shared, she asked, “How might your skin feel?”

Because Kwon-Dobbs was a new professor at the time, she was unable to really speak up about the experience, but she expressed her gratitude for the support of her colleagues and the administration’s “commitment to social justice.” When she finished her statement, the room erupted into applause.

After Kwon-Dobbs’ narrative, the panel responded to several more questions. One faculty member received significant attention from the crowd for comments urging the administration to have a “full commitment” to the issue of diversity.

There is no denying the fact that the number of international and domestic multicultural students is increasing at St. Olaf. Anderson stated that he plans to “work really hard at [increasing diversity on campus].” Kyle also pointed out that the top five schools to which St. Olaf typically compares itself have not achieved equivalent levels of diversity.

If this panel’s engaged audience is any indication, race continues to matter to the students, faculty and staff of St. Olaf.