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Santurri’s early removal from Institute leadership raises questions

Edmund Santurri, professor of religion and philosophy, was removed from his role as Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community, effective at the end of the current academic year. This decision has created conflicting accounts as to the reasoning behind the St. Olaf administration’s premature termination of Santurri’s Institute contract. 

Santurri and various individuals and organizations within academia have claimed that his removal stems directly from the Institute’s hosting of philosopher Peter Singer earlier this spring. President David Anderson ’74, in statements to the Messenger and other media outlets, has denied this association, claiming that the removal was “not the result of the current Institute director’s decision to host any controversial speaker.”    

The College established the Institute in 2014 and runs various public programs and educational offerings with the goal of “encouraging free inquiry and meaningful debate,” according to its mission statement. The Institute’s hosting of Singer on Feb. 16, 2022, was met with community backlash that included a petition to boycott the event signed by 1,010 people. 

According to Anderson, the College had begun devising a succession plan for Institute directorship after Santurri’s contract expired at the end of the 2022-2023 academic year “roughly a year ago.”

“The goal of the succession planning was to ensure that a smooth leadership transition had been successfully accomplished when the next president takes office in the summer of 2023,” Anderson wrote to the Messenger. “As time passed, it became clear that to ensure that smooth transition it would be better for the leadership change to occur this spring rather than next spring.”

“Directing the Institute can be challenging,” Anderson continued. “As described above, it’s in the best interests of the Institute, when there is a leadership change planned, amongst all of the other leadership transitions occurring around it, during the polarized times in which we live, for the next Director to have a year’s experience at the work before the next president arrives.”

While Anderson said that planning started last spring, Santurri has stated that he was not informed of any replacement plan and that the College had informed him in July 2021 that his contract would be extended until the end of the 2022-2023 academic year. 

This was the case until, at a March 28 Zoom meeting with Chair of the Institute Advisory Board John Grotting ’71, Anderson informed Santurri that his contract would be terminated at the end of the current academic year. Anderson informed faculty and staff of this decision via email on April 20.

A source with intimate knowledge of the Institute leadership planning and transitioning processes corroborated Anderson’s explanation for deciding to end Santurri’s directorship at the end of the current academic year and choice to inform Santurri of that decision this spring. 

The Institute inviting Peter Singer and other speakers who sparked community discomfort like John McWhorter or Andrew Sullivan — whose planned campus lecture was canceled due to community pushback — had no bearing on the removal decision, according to Anderson and the anonymous source.

A letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), addressed to Anderson directly, argued that “St. Olaf’s Removal of Santurri as Institute Director Violates Its Commitments to Free Expression” in the second section and asked that Santurri be paid “all stipends pursuant to his appointment letter” and that he be allowed to sit on the Institute’s Advisory Board — a move Santurri requested in a March 31 meeting with Anderson. Anderson denied that request. 

Another letter, from the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) and also addressed to Anderson, urged the same things — that Santurri’s stipends be paid and that he be allowed to sit on the Advisory Board. Other articles in the Star Tribune and Inside Higher Ed covered Santurri’s removal. Individual academics and alumni have sent out a number of their own personal statements or communications on the matter.

In response to a question concerning if this feedback constitutes an “extensive response throughout academia,” Anderson wrote that, “There hasn’t been an ‘extensive response throughout academia’ to this decision.”

He continued, “I’ve received about twenty emails about it.” 

One of the communications Anderson received was a letter of resignation from his position on the Advisory Board from former Provost of the College and Professor Emeritus of Classics, James May. May, as he explained in emailed comments to the Messenger, resigned from the Board in protest of the administration’s handling of Santurri’s removal, a perceived “betrayal of the mission of the College and the Institute,” and the “uncharitable, unfair, and uncalled for treatment of a distinguished member of the faculty.”     

“In my letter of resignation, I recalled that when I was hired at St. Olaf over 45 years ago, we used to speak of the ‘St. Olaf family’ and prided ourselves in being a college of the Church, where the charity and love of the Christian Gospel prevailed; I asked the question, ‘What has happened to St. Olaf College?’” May wrote in his comments to the Messenger. 

Part of May’s reservations come from his understanding that the timeline Anderson had laid out for appointing a new director at the end of the current academic year instead of the next “was really something of a pretext for removing Santurri,” he wrote to the Messenger. He also wrote that “half of us on the Board had not even been consulted or advised about this new ‘timeline’” prior to Santurri’s removal. 

While members of the Advisory Board — which “monitors the work of the Institute” — are appointed by the Chair of the Board of Regents, “Ultimately, the Institute reports to the President,” Anderson wrote.

Anderson could not provide more details into the nature of Santurri’s contract termination due to matters of personnel privacy. 

Peter Singer, the Institute-invited February speaker and the subject of many speculations as to the reasoning behind Santurri’s removal, said that he was “shocked” when he heard of the decision.

“This seemed such a clear case of violation of freedom of expression, freedom of thought and discussion which you would think universities would respect,” Singer said in an interview with the Messenger. “I was really taken aback.”

Although Santurri is not individually responsible for who the Institute invites to speak on campus, he has a large say in organizing the semester-long, themed speaker series that structure the Institute’s programming. For example, Singer’s virtual talk was the first event in the spring 2022 series entitled, “Contemporary Controversies,” which also featured talks with author John McWhorter, historians Leslie M. Harris and Philip W. Magness, and scholar Gary Saul Morson.

The nature of these series, perceived by some as intentionally and — in the most recent case, eponymously — controversial, has previously discomforted St. Olaf community members.      

Santurri declined to provide comment to the Messenger for this article.


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