St. Olaf’s 50 year history of race and ethnic studies

This homecoming weekend, St. Olaf will celebrate 50 years since Race and Ethnic Studies (RACE) was founded in 1969. During the weekend events, the College will receive a donation to establish a new Race and Ethnic Studies Program Endowment.

One of the first race and ethnic studies programs in the nation, the RACE program has faced both challenges and successes over the course of its 50-year history.

During the 1960s, students across the nation engaged in protests demanding a curriculum that included the histories of racial minorities. The first ethnic studies department was established at San Francisco State University in 1968 following an extended period of protests.

Nationwide protests and discourse surrounding equity and race sparked a conversation regarding the need for curriculum reform at St. Olaf. The College created the Cultural Union for Black Expression (CUBE) and the Free University in 1967 in response to these growing concerns.

The Free University was founded based on a student initiative to diversify the College’s curriculum. Jody Olson ’68, leader of the Free University committee, saw an opportunity to create the program, as the curriculum “in its present form is ‘institutional and conventional’ and often fails to speak to relevant and vital issues,” according to a September 1967 Mantou Messenger article. Courses were held at night and taught by students and willing faculty.

The first African-American history course commenced in the Free University’s wide-ranging curriculum. Ron Hunter ’70, a member of the Black Action Committee, created a syllabus in collaboration with a curriculum committee and taught the course in the Free University. The course was offered, “in order to give a better understanding of the Negro’s position in the American society today,” according to an article in the Manitou Messenger from February 1968.

Chairman of the history department Henry Fritz received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities due to the expanded CUBE and Free University programs, which led to the establishment and institutionalization of American Minority Studies in 1969.

“Students have always wanted this material,” said RACE Program Director and Associate Professor of English Jennifer Kwon Dobbs. “They’ve seen a need, and it’s through student leadership that this curriculum even emerged.”

Former President of the College Mel George worked to increase diversity and is credited as a primary supporter of the College’s efforts to promote equity and inclusion. During his tenure, American Minority Studies received a Pew Grant and was renamed to American Racial and Multicultural Studies (ARMS).

“President Mel George was the man of vision that made it all possible because he was a president that was in favor of diversity,” said Joan Hepburn, Associate Professor of English and former Chair of ARMS.

The school faced cutbacks from the administration following the departure of George. At this time, the American Studies department threatened to absorb ARMS. Upon hearing this, Hepburn interrupted the meeting uninvited and filibustered her way to ensuring ARMS would continue to stand alone as a program.

“I called them on the business of holding a vote concerning the life of another program they never said a sentence to,” Hepburn said.

Hepburn and other faculty held meetings to change the mission, goals and learning outcomes to ensure ARMS couldn’t be dissolved into another program.

“I don’t see a point in ignoring race and ethnic studies, because it influences everything,” Hepburn said.

After receiving a Provost’s Academic Innovation Fund Grant in 2011, ARMS convened the Mapping Ethnic Studies learning community and renamed itself Race and Ethnic Studies to fully encapsulate the extent of its curriculum and mission.

The demand for RACE courses has increased over the years as students across departments have expressed increased interest. The number of declared majors and concentrations has nearly quadrupled in the past 11 years. Because of this, the amount of courses offered annually can barely sustain the demand.

“We have a lot to do with very little,” Kwon Dobbs said. “This fall, the Intro to Race and Ethnic studies class was filled with just pre-registration.”

In 2017, following campus-wide protests against institutional racism, St. Olaf alumni created Oles for Racial Awareness, Change and Equity (ORACE). One of ORACE’s founders Jane Burnett ’72 and Kwon Dobbs met with members of the program to create and fund an endowment to both grow and protect the RACE program. The endowment is set to be completed in the coming months.

Disclosure: Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is the faculty advisor for the Manitou Messenger.