María Pabón Gautier gives parents update on diversity, equity, and inclusion

On Oct. 9, Vice President for Equity and Inclusion, María Pabón Gautier, gave a talk for parents of current St. Olaf students, updating them on the college’s work around diversity, equity, and inclusion. Pabón Gautier provided information on a number of issues, programs, goals, and then took questions from parents.

Pabón Gautier framed the talk by celebrating the college’s wins surrounding equity and inclusion while also figuring out how to continue to grow. She emphasized the roles the campus community has played in the school’s work. “Students, staff, and faculty are known for pushing the boundaries and not conforming,” Pabón Gautier said.

The first section of the talk centered around student experiences. Pabón Gautier discussed the changing demographics of the school over the last 10 years. In 2012, 77 percent of St. Olaf students were white, 15 percent were BIPOC, and 8 percent were international students. In 2021, 66 percent of students are white, 23 percent are BIPOC, and 10 percent are international students.

Pabón Gautier highlighted how students in marginalized communities felt at St. Olaf over the years. “We learned that there was a significant difference between the experience and feelings of belonging of our Black, indigenous students of color and LGBTQIA+ students when compared to their white and not LGBTQIA counterparts. Our students were telling us that not everyone felt part of the community, connected, or had a sense of agency,” Pabón Gautier said.

In response to student concerns, she said, “Our staff and faculty jumped into action.”

Pabón Gautier then explained several of the programs at St. Olaf that are supposed to support BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students, as well as other students in marginalized communities. She pointed to the new St. Olaf Orientation to Academics and Resources (SOAR) program, Heritage Scholars, the Sophomore Experience, and the Taylor, Piper, and Lutheran Centers.

“This is just a drop in the bucket of everything that our staff and faculty are constantly developing,” Pabón Gautier said.

The next portion of the talk centered around academics. She explained that the OLE Core, the new general education system implemented this year, involves more focus on engaging with the world and students’ communities.

Pabón Gautier then discussed the new Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality studies department, which launches next year. More reporting on this development is forthcoming.

“All of these different changes around the academic programs are in response to what our students are telling us they want more and need more,” Pabón Gautier said, adding that “In order to make sure we are able to provide some life for our students, faculty, and staff, we have to continue to listen and change when they tell us what needs to change.”

Pabón Gautier went on to explain the Co-Creating an Inclusive Community programs the College ran last academic year, in which 1500 community members participated. “This is our community showing up and walking the talk,” she said.

The question and answer portion of the event yielded some additional information.

Vice President for Advancement, Enoch Blazis, talked briefly about diversity on the Board of Regents. According to Blazis, of the 25 Regents, 45 percent are white men, 16 percent are people of color, and 36 percent are women.

“It is one of the big priorities of [Blazis] to continue to diversify the Board of Regents,” Pabón Gautier said.

The talk did point out some of the issues that the community, especially BIPOC students, faculty, and staff, have raised around racism and marginalization at St. Olaf. However, Pabón Gautier largely explained these concerns in general terms, rather than discussing specific incidents or issues like the 7 Feet for 7 Shots protest and the resignations of Michelle Gibbs and Ellen Ogihara last academic year.

Pabón Gautier framing of St. Olaf’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work was definitely tailored to parents, who are a step removed from life on the Hill. Crucially, parents are often the ones paying students’ tuition.  The talk shows how the St. Olaf administration presents its work around diversity, equity, and inclusion to parents — and, more broadly, the image the college that the administration shows to those outside the campus community.

The image the administration presented at this event was largely positive, emphasizing the college’s work around diversity, equity, and inclusion and painting current problems with a broad brush. Pabón Gautier also emphasized that St. Olaf’s efforts are an ongoing project.

“We know we have a lot more work to do,” she said.

Near the end of the talk, Pabón described the central goal of the College’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work as part of building community. “We want our students to be part of our family, part of their new home,” Pabón Gautier said.


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