By Hannah Summers, Managing Editor & Jacob Maranda, Executive Editor
Research and Instruction Librarian for Music and the Fine Arts, Ellen Ogihara, resigned from St. Olaf on Friday, Jan. 29. In a letter sent to colleagues and circulated by others on the St. Olaf Extra email alias and other channels, Ogihara cites several instances of bias and discrimination she experienced throughout her time with library and information technology services (LITS).
“Over the last two years since I began this position, the environment at the college, and within the libraries and IT, has become increasingly hostile, and as a person of color, I no longer feel safe or welcome at this institution,” Ogihara wrote in the letter’s introduction.
Over a week after Ogihara’s resignation, the College has yet to publicly address her departure. Upon The Olaf Messenger’s request for comment from individuals close to the matter, Marketing and Communications (MarCom) released an open letter from President David Anderson ’74 to the Messenger discussing the College’s purported commitment to equity and inclusion.
The full text of Anderson’s open letter is provided below.
While Ogihara cites that the work of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) was emphasized in her job description, she states in her letter that she received little support and negative responses from supervisors and colleagues when attempting to institute changes such as collecting music from Black composers or updating the Catalyst system for better accessibility.
“Each time my efforts to implement DEI values into my work resulted in being reprimanded, denied, or humiliated. But I continued my efforts anyway, because I knew it was important work,” Ogihara wrote.
She goes on to describe experiencing “extreme microaggressions” in late February in connection with racially charged responses to the spread of COVID-19.
“At a time when Asians were being blamed for the spread of the virus, I had colleagues treating me like I had the plague, or humiliating me in front of my coworkers, aggressively yelling at me to wash my hands or stop touching my face,” Ogihara wrote.
Ogihara was furloughed from the College during the summer, a move that she wrote, “came as a shock.” She states in her letter that her furlough happened when she was scheduled to work with several music courses, while noting that at the same time her white colleagues were not furloughed.
In the week preceding her resignation, Ogihara states that her supervisor brought a Human Resources (HR) representative into one of their bi-weekly meetings.
“Though his email had made it seem like the meeting had been set to finally address all of the experiences I had endured, instead, I was scolded and reprimanded for an hour and a half,” Ogihara wrote.
According to Ogihara, the meeting with HR focused on concerns she had raised during a separate meeting with research and instruction (R&I) colleagues two weeks prior to her resignation in which she had questioned the texts to be included in the Institute for Freedom and Community’s Summer Fellowship Program and the College’s stances on issues of structural racism and white supremacy.
“During my ‘check-in’ with my supervisor and HR, I was told that it was unprofessional for me to bring up ‘personal opinions’, and that strong words like ‘white supremacy’ or ‘Proud Boys’ make my colleagues in the R&I team ‘uncomfortable’, and thus it is unfair to them for me to initiate these conversations,” Ogihara wrote.
The presence of an HR representative surprised Ogihara, she wrote, and she cites the meeting in her letter as the final catalyst for her resignation from the College.
“I don’t think I need to lay out why a response like this, let alone having a surprise HR session sprung on me, is unacceptable in every way, but the meeting was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Ogihara wrote.
Throughout her experiences, Ogihara describes in her letter a lack of support shown from the rest of the LITS staff.
One instance came during the spring of 2020, when Ogihara reported the racist microaggressions surrounding COVID-19 to the Chief Information Officer (CIO) in LITS, Roberta Lembke ’81. According to Ogihara, Lembke told her that “nobody would be reprimanded or fired, and that [she] could chat with Bruce King about it if it was that upsetting, since ‘he’s also not white’.”
Lembke sent an email to LITS staff on Monday, Feb. 1, three days after Ogihara had shared her letter.
“As you know, Ellen resigned abruptly on Friday. She accompanied her resignation with a letter that made several unfair and inaccurate allegations against me, Jason, and other LITS staff members,” Lembke wrote. She continued, “The letter will create uncomfortable situations for all of us.”
Lembke stated in the email that Ogihara’s letter and “documents that address the accusations brought against LITS” had been shared with the President’s Leadership Team. She reminded staff, “You are under no obligation to answer questions if you choose not to, and we are asking you to let us know immediately if you feel undue pressure from anyone to address this situation.”
The full text of Lembke’s email is provided below.
The Olaf Messenger requested comment from Lembke, as well as from Head of Research and Instruction Jason Paul and Associate Director of Human Resources Jacqueline Christensen for this article. In response MarCom deferred to Anderson’s open letter, preventing the Messenger from receiving comment from those immediately involved in the incidents Ogihara describes in her letter.
Anderson, in his letter, expressed his disappointment upon reading Ogihara’s letter of resignation. He emphasized the College’s dedication to “prohibiting discriminatory or racist conduct,” pointing to the campus’ anti-racism training and bias reporting system.
“Unfortunately, the concerns outlined in this letter were not submitted through the bias incident reporting process,” Anderson wrote. “I wish they had been, so that the college could have investigated the report and responded appropriately at the time. However, we are still investigating what Ellen has shared, and we will act swiftly and appropriately as warranted.”
In the conclusion of her letter, Ogihara wrote, “I plea to all of you, especially our white colleagues: advocate fiercely and actively for the music library, and for all the marginalized groups and silenced voices on this campus. Demand meaningful change, and hold leadership accountable.”
The full text of Ogihara’s letter is provided below.