On Tuesday, Nov. 24, St. Olaf student activists gathered in the quad to demonstrate their support for the Minneapolis Black Lives Matter movement. Amid the popular chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “No justice, no peace, prosecute the police,” students voiced one chant specific to St. Olaf College. Wielding bullhorns and signs, the more than 100 students aimed the chant of “No room for debate” directly at school administrators.
The controversy stems from the fall 2015 issue of the St. Olaf Magazine. In it, the college ran a 16-page spread titled “Room for Debate.” The article summarized last year’s lecture series on race and policing and featured criminologist George Kelling ’56, social science analyst Sarah Estill ’06 and sociology professor Victor Rios. Director of Marketing and Communications Steve Blodgett saw the article as a chance to showcase the college’s new Institute for Freedom and Community.
“Based on the speaker series, we put together an article on race and community, involving most of the speakers who had been engaged in the institute’s deliberations on [the issue of race and policing], added in an alum who was doing significant research in that area and used the subject to introduce the institute,” he said.
But for many current students and alumni, the article was evidence of structural racism and systematic exclusion of minority voices by St. Olaf’s administration.
“When I first saw the article in the St. Olaf magazine, I was downright horrified,” Tasha Viets-VanLear ’15 said. “In its advertisement for the new Institute for Freedom and Community. The article very clearly discourages civil disobedience and public disruption on St. Olaf’s campus. [The article] silences the voices of students of color and any other ‘violent’ opinion seen as deviant.”
Last year saw multiple Black Lives Matter protests on campus. These demonstrations included “die-ins” during Christmas Festival in remembrance of Michael Brown – whose body lay in the street in Ferguson, Mo. for four and a half hours – signs hung from the Christmas trees in Buntrock Commons, a protest against Kelling’s lecture and a demonstration in April denouncing Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore.
This semester, students have joined the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis and Chicago, and a group of recent alumni, frustrated with the magazine article’s omission of last year’s activism, began a campaign calling for greater administrative attention to racial issues.
The alumni drafted a letter to the administration and created a petition calling for the college to “publish a statement outlining the college’s stance on racial justice in the U.S.” and “acknowledging racism on its campus,” as well as “implement practices and policies that promote racial justice on campus and in the college’s wider community.” The petition has garnered over 400 signatures.
“Like anyone who signed the petition, I am mostly hoping to see St. Olaf take a firm stance on issues of racial injustice,” Ola Faleti ’15 said. “I do not think the school as it is lives up to its mission statement of cultivating knowledgeable world citizens.”
Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity Bruce King feels that the article was a “missed opportunity” to discuss student activism, but he believes that a petition is not the way to tackle these issues constructively.
“I think that while it’s unfortunate that people feel the way they do about the article, that they wish the article had said more, done more, been different, it’s an article in a college magazine,” King said. “I would like my [efforts] to stay more focused on the kinds of things that we are trying to do with the Institute or with our students, addressing some of the real issues on campus, as opposed to how magazine articles are written. I’d be happy to talk with those young alums in constructive conversation, but attacking, trying to get at the college through a magazine article is just not the way I want to engage.”
Alumni claim that they have yet to hear from a campus administrator. Viets-VanLear would like to hear from one person in particular.
“Those individuals who hold great power in institutions like St. Olaf – I’m talking about President David Anderson here – are all too eager to ignore the problem, in our case, our demands for real action and attention standing against racial oppression and police brutality against people of color in the United States,” she said.
Blodgett believes that the magazine article was simply misunderstood.
“[Those angry at the article] need to look at the totality of the magazine, its various features over the years and the style of the publication and what it tries to achieve, not just particularly zero in on whether the right voices were in this particular article,” Blodgett said.
But that’s precisely the problem for many students, who say the right voices are never heard. For many, the article shows entrenched problems within the St. Olaf community. Students of color describe a culture of apathy and ignorance on the part of the administration and from their peers.
“There’s a lot of ignorance out there, for sure. St. Olaf as I know it is not an environment where people get uncomfortable,” Faleti said. “But that’s necessary, that’s so, so necessary if you ever want to learn anything. And then students of color have to educate everyone else, because our curriculum isn’t doing it. And that’s not fair. I went to school to learn, not to become everyone’s black educator.”
Faleti notes that St. Olaf is proud of its civil rights legacy – the school just built a memorial to activist alumni James Reeb ’50, who was killed while participating in the Selma Voting Rights Movement in 1965 – and that the institution needs to rededicate itself to the cause of justice.
“In general, this is a revolutionary time we’re living in. Now is not the time to be neutral or use objective language in the face of injustice,” Faleti said. “Policing tactics are not some hypothetical debate – people, black people, are dying every day because of them.”