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Board of regents recap: Equity, inclusion and mental health

The St. Olaf Board of Regents convened over Zoom for their second tri-annual meeting of the school year on Feb. 4. The meeting focused on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at St. Olaf as well as the school’s response to COVID-19.  

The Regents and the President’s Leadership Team discussed former music librarian Ellen Ogihara’s recent resignation, and passed a resolution in honor of Bruce King maintaining their purported commitment to DEI. King will vacate his position of Vice President for Equity and Inclusion on Feb. 28 as he announced in his resignation from the college.

Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science, Matthew Richey, serves as the faculty representative to the Board of Regents. Richey gave a presentation to the Board focused on recent resignations of faculty and staff of color who have cited harassment, discrimintion and racism as motivations for leaving the College. 

Echoing Richey, the Community Life subcommittee session focused exclusively on DEI. During the session, the directors of the Lutheran Center, Piper Center, Taylor Center and Institute for Freedom and Community were all prompted to speak on their commitments to DEI in a conversation that King moderated. 

In the general board meeting, leaders of DEI initiatives expressed their commitment to transparency about their current initiatives and data, as well as creating and implementing metrics by which DEI can be measured and quantified. 

BORSC has criticized the emphasis on quantifying DEI in previous presentations.

“Once you shift away from individuals and turn it into numbers, lots of things get lost,” BORSC Coordinator Fricka Lindemann ’22 said. “And it turns into this mathematical exercise rather than an effort to take care of individuals. At least that’s what we fear.” 

During every Board of Regents meeting, BORSC is allotted time to give a presentation on an issue impacting students. The presentation at the meeting focused on mental health, specifically the need for better preventative mental health resources. 

“There’s currently only one person in the entire school that is employed who is partially working on that,” Lindemann said. 

That person is Jenny Ortiz ’15, the Assistant Director of Wellness and Health Promotions in the Wellness Center. While Lindemann acknowledged that Boe House Counceling Center had stepped in to provide some preventative mental health resources during Interim, she cited a recent CDC report showing that one in four Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 reported having seriously considered suicide during the pandemic. This demonstrates the urgent need for increased mental health care and the importance of putting resources toward preventative mental health services. Lindemann said that BORSC’s presentation was overall well received. 

However, Lindemann also expressed frustration at a response from a College employee who said that preventative mental health care should be a Student Government Association (SGA) initiative. SGA currently has the Greater Than initiative aimed at promoting mental health awareness.

“Almost every presentation we hold gets some type of ‘But what about the students, why don’t they do it?’” Lindemann said. “Which is not the purpose nor audience of BORSC’s presentations.” 

Beyond hearing from students and faculty representatives at the meeting, the Board of Regents also approved multiple changes to the College’s operations. For the entirety of spring semester the College will randomly test 525 students weekly, nearly double the number who were tested each week in the fall. Additionally, the Board certified the renaming of the Department of Exercise Science to the Department of Kinesiology, a change made to more accurately reflect the broad focus of the department. 

In addition to changes regarding the College, the Board also unanimously passed changes to their own governing bylaws on how new members are selected for the Board. 

Previously, according to the bylaws, the Chair of the Board alone could select a new person and have them become a Regent. While previously the rest of the Board could give feedback, the feedback process was not required for the selection of a new member.

The change to the bylaws requires that several board members must confirm and review a new board member before being appointed. 

At the meeting, the Board also appointed one new regent, Marvin Benton `75. While at St. Olaf Benton was a member of CUBE. He is the current president of Harvard Kennedy School’s Black Alumni Association as well as a member of the Kennedy School’s Alumni Board. 

The Board members shared that they will place greater emphasis on gender, racial and occupational diversity in the future selection of new Regents. 

The Regents also discussed future decisions, including a proposal submitted by the student organization Climate Justice Collective urging the school to divest from the fossil fuel industry. The Investment Committee will vote on the proposal at their final meeting of the school year in May.

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