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The kind of staff we lose

Music students reflect on departure of Ellen Ogihara

St. Olaf loves to market itself as an institution committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, but beneath the optics and empty rhetoric the College continually fails to adequately protect and support staff, faculty and students of color. The College’s response to the departure of former Research and Instruction Librarian for Music and the Fine Arts, Ellen Ogihara, exemplifies the disregard and defensiveness that make this campus an unwelcoming place for BIPOC individuals.

The loss of Ogihara in the Music Library deeply affected the students with whom she worked, and the College as whole lost a constant advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion on the Hill.

Four students who worked closely with Ogihara in the Music Library — Landry Forrest ’22, Logan Combs ’22, Maxwell Voda ’21 and Olivia Simonson ’23 — shared the importance of her work and contributions and echoed the impact of her departure on music at St. Olaf in a series of interviews with the Messenger.

“[Ellen Ogihara] is really reputable in her field, she’s really well known and she’s very talented musically and academically, so she’s definitely a big loss to not only the library but the department and the student body as a whole,” Forrest said.

“My first reaction to reading her letter I was really upset, I was really angry for her. I’m really proud of her for doing what she did and for understanding that this job is not as important as her well-being and her self-worth and her passion for library science,” Combs said. “It sucks that she had to quit so that all of us knew this was happening, but I’m proud of her for doing that big thing and taking care of herself. I’m just heartbroken for her.”

Voda has worked in the music library since Ogihara first came to the College. “She came in my sophomore year. Our old supervisor had been with the library for a really long time and had sort of built the collection that we all know, but what I think was really special was they hired someone who was close in age to us, who I felt like all the student workers could relate to and talk to,” Voda said.

Voda continued, “It was a welcome shift in tone when she took over, and even the way the library looked changed, everything got a fresh new vibe to it. It was a pretty marked difference and the library started to feel new again.”

Ogihara was committed to expanding diversity and representation in the music library collection during her time with the music library. 

“I always knew that that was one of her active goals, she was always working towards that. She was in charge of doing the music library display every month, so every month she focused on displaying and showcasing artists, musicians, composers of color, BIPOC and queer artists,” Simonson said. “I do remember her making slight comments about her frustration that we don’t have as much as she hoped — that it was hard for her to piece together certain themes, like if she wanted to focus on Native American musicians.”

In her letter of resignation, Ogihara described receiving significant pushback when working to institute principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, despite the College making this work explicit in her job description. “What I met, however, through every step of the way, was extreme reluctance and a lack of willingness towards the values of DEI,” Ogihara wrote in the letter. 

“As a whole in the music library we do a lot of talking about diversifying our repertoire and making sure that we are performing more than just music from dead white men. It’s something we’re really trying to focus on. And we’re also trying to focus on doing music with messages of social justice,” Combs said. 

The pushback Ogihara faced is just one instance of the College purporting to value DEI but failing to provide the financial and logistical support to institute actual changes. 

Students also spoke at length about Ogiahara’s thoughtfulness, support and enthusiasm. 

“One of my favorite things I remember about Ellen was that she and her partner would always make really good baked goods for all the library workers. So she made some of the best cookies I’ve ever had,” Simonson said. “She would package them up individually for us and she would write really beautiful handwritten letters for each of the workers in really nice calligraphy and I have them on my bulletin board actually.”

Simonson also described how Ogihara was the instigator of decorating the music library for seasonal events and holidays and, Simson continued, “always brought in a lot of creative ideas for activities.”

“She is absolutely an overall gem of a person,” Combs said. “She actually introduced me to the library collections and showed me where things were in the music library when I first started as a research tutor. I just remember being kind of overwhelmed about trying to memorize where all these things were, like, I don’t know, the full collection of J.S.Bach. And she acknowledged that and made it enjoyable and easy and made me end that training feeling self-assured and confident.”

Students described the effort and time Ogihara put into her relationships with student workers and library patrons. 

“When she wasn’t at Rolvaag she made it a point to come behind the desk and not just stay in her office and do her work in the stool next to you and talk to you. She obviously cared very deeply about all the student workers and also the patrons of the library” Voda said. 

Combs also spoke about Ogihara’s geniality, saying, “She was very available if you ever needed to talk to her and would move appointments around to prioritize meeting with students.” 

“Ellen is just someone that anyone could approach, someone that was always looking to help you, whether it was academics or finding a job even. She was just always someone who had any resource for you,” Forrest said. “She was someone who always initiated the mental health awareness in the library and having a break area for students and some de-stressing activities … so there’s a complete mood shift in the library having her gone.” 

Both students who work in the music library and are involved in music at large have felt Oghiara’s absence since the return to campus for the spring. 

“Ellen’s position should have been two positions — she was doing more than enough work for one person already. And they still haven’t hired any interim person to take care of any of her responsibilities, so right now we just have one person in the music library working who’s not a student,” Forrest said. “We’ve been taking on more responsibilities to help with some of the shortcomings that are going on, but I know I personally and a bunch of other people have been having issues with upper level musicology research and there’s no research librarian to help with any of those sorts of issues.”

The Music Department Student Committee, a standing group that consists of six music students, including Voda, sent a letter to students, faculty and staff expressing their support for Ogihara on March 1. The letter demanded concrete actions from the LITS team, including an investigation into Ogihara’s experiences and “a clear and public directive that LITS will be taking in the future to ensure that no other current or future employee or student will experience what Ellen had to endure.”  

In their email the committee specifically called on Roberta Lembke, the LITS Chief Information Officer, and Jason Paul, Head of Research and Instruction, to “make a public statement about their plans for creating a safe, anti-racist environment in their department.”

Lembke and Paul have yet to issue such a statement, but the College has brought in external counsel to investigate instances bias and discrimination within LITS. 

If the administration and student body does not learn to take accountability and to prioritize the lived experiences of community members of color instead of focusing on our image of activism, then we will continue to lose dedicated, innovative, passionate staff like Ellen Ogihara, and the campus, curriculum and students will suffer because of it.

Hannah Summers ’22 is from Spokane, WA.

Her majors are English  and chemistry.