Two years ago this week, the Collective for Change on the Hill brought St. Olaf College to a standstill. Read on for what's happened since.
"Where the inequity lies"
Between Sept. 4, 2016 and April 29, 2017, nine racist messages were discovered on the St. Olaf campus. The last two notes directly targeted two black students, and catalyzed a movement that would call attention to institutional racism at the College. (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)
“Where the inequity lies.”
By Avery Ellfeldt
May 3, 2019
With bullhorn in hand, Krysta Wetzel ’18 stood on the second level of the St. Olaf College dining hall April 24, 2017, looking over the space.
“We as students of color feel unsafe on this campus, and we will continue to make noise and disrupt your lives until ours are made safer in a really strategic and structured way,” Wetzel said, positioned above the buzz of the dining hall. As Wetzel spoke, students craned their necks to identify the voice disrupting their evening meal. Meanwhile, Wetzel’s friend recorded the speech on their phone. The recording was later posted on Facebook – The Carletonian reported May 5 that the video was shared more than 500 times.
Over the next week, a group of 21 students – the Collective for Change on the Hill – successfully brought St. Olaf College to a halt; student organizers slept on the floor of Buntrock Commons, forced the College to cancel all classes May 1 and brought national attention to the unrest taking place in Northfield, Minn. – a sleepy, midwestern town whose motto is “Cows, Colleges and Contentment.”
“The biggest importance that I would attach to the movement was the disruption that it caused – the rapture, the fact that a place like this one could be brought to a standstill, necessarily so,” Collective member Abdul Wake ’19 said.
The movement was spurred by nine racial slurs found scribbled in public spaces throughout the 2016-17 academic school year. The incidents varied in location, timing and discovery – in one instance, the N-word was found written on a whiteboard in a residence hall. In another, the slur was scrawled on a sheet of paper and dropped into an “Ask a Muslim anything” submission box. Later, the words “Build the Wall! Deport the Illegals! Trump won!” were found written on another college whiteboard.
After student organizers and some initial protestors blocked the entrance to the Cafeteria, hundreds of students began to gather in Buntrock Commons April 29. Throughout the night, students of color spoke to the crowd about their experiences of racism at St. Olaf, and eventually demanded President Anderson come to campus. When Anderson and Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity Bruce King later arrived, students asked them questions in front of the crowd. (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)
While the first seven incidents involved anonymous, racist messages written in public spaces, the eighth and ninth directly targeted two black St. Olaf students.
Don Williams ’17 took their dog for a walk around midnight on April 23. When Williams returned, they found a note with the N-word scribbled on it attached to their car.
The next day, Williams, with the help of others, organized a meeting in the Center for Art and Dance (CAD), where students of color filled the Link to share their experiences of racism at St. Olaf. At the gathering, one student said that after leaving her backpack outside the cafeteria, she returned to find a note that read “go back to Africa.” Other students spoke about St. Olaf professors using the N-word in academic settings.
Collective member Jabri Whirl ’18 referred to the April 24 gathering as “the family meeting in CAD.”
“That moment made me realize that this [was] beyond my individual experience with this, this is something that [was] systematically happening to us, and systematically over the years, people have had to deal with it alone,” Whirl said.
[This] is something that was systematically happening to us, and systematically over the years people have had to deal with it alone.
Note number nine
On April 29, messages began to circulate via Snapchat and Facebook that Samantha Wells ’17, like Williams, found a racist note on her car. Tamira Fuentes ’19 said she heard the news on her way to an event hosted by Presente, a student organization that promotes awareness of Latinx culture.
“I was going to help Presente cook, and then … some of the students came up the Hill and were talking about Sam’s note that was posted on Facebook,” Fuentes said. “So I went back into Buntrock and students were already kind of together.”
This time, the note was typed. It addressed Wells directly, reading, “I am so glad that you are leaving soon. One less n***** that this school has to deal with. You have spoken up too much. You will change nothing. Shut up or I will shut you up.”
Collective member Krysta Wetzel ’18 speaks during the Tomson sit-in. (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)
Early that evening Tia Schaffer ’20, Wetzel, Williams and others walked across campus and spoke into a megaphone – they urged students to gather in Buntrock Commons and block the entrance to the cafeteria. The blockade later developed into a full-fledged Buntrock sit-in. Over a loudspeaker, students of color addressed a packed house once again. They shared anecdotes of professors and peers patronizing them in classes, feeling socially isolated from the general community and being tokenized in the College’s marketing materials. Organizers and protestors remained in the building through the night and into the early morning. Meanwhile, student EMTs were on standby and the Pause Kitchen reopened to make pizza for the crowd. KSTO, St. Olaf’s student radio station, used their equipment to stream the events of the sit-in. News reporters arrived on campus, answering the Collective’s call for national media attention.
Students who’ve had a strong presence, or students who knew how to have these conversations were the ones that were being recruited, being asked ‘Do you want to be committed to this?’
“That just happened because there was a need for people to stand in solidarity with each other and for people to be heard and to let people know we were afraid,” Collective member Dillon Cathro ’17 said. “It was during that sit-in when there were 1,000 people there that I was pulled in with about 20 others into the Pause.”
Whirl, Fuentes and Wake characterized the formation of the Collective as both organic and strategic. “Students who’ve had a strong presence, or students who knew how to have these conversations were the ones that were being recruited, being asked ‘Do you want to be committed to this?” Fuentes said.
The organizers divided themselves into subcommittees – some would handle administrative tasks, others would communicate with the press, alumni and faculty. Whirl, a studio art major, built and maintained the Collective’s website. Fuentes took meeting minutes and facilitated communication among the group.
April 30, student organizers alerted the student body, faculty and staff that the following Monday, there would be a protest in Tomson Hall beginning at 7:50 a.m. sharp. In an email to the community, Cathro urged faculty to support student efforts by canceling classes, making accommodations regarding assignments and attending the protest themselves. The President’s Leadership Team (PLT) ultimately cancelled classes for that Monday. Several days prior, during the Buntrock sit-in, Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity Bruce King announced the PLT would host a Q&A session with students in Tomson 280 at 8:30 a.m. The Collective urged students not to attend.
On the morning of May 1, students flooded the building and began a day-long sit-in. All three levels of the building were packed tight – students camped out in classrooms and left standing room only in the Tomson atrium. Members of the Collective tried to bring their list of demands to Anderson at 8:45 a.m., only to find that he was not in his office. They subsequently led students to Tomson 280 to request that Anderson sign the “terms and conditions of negotiation.” Anderson delayed discussions in order to attend Chapel service that day, where Paul Briggs spoke at 10:10 a.m. After roughly six hours of discussion over the wording and content of the terms, Anderson agreed to the revised version around 3 p.m.
While the general community was well aware of the organizing work the student leaders were doing, every member of the Collective interviewed for this story highlighted that behind the scenes, they also had the responsibility of monitoring the emotional wellbeing of their peers, co-organizers and friends.
“That’s what the true nature of a collective is,” Cathro said. “You know, you might have a main role but the nature of a collective is such that if someone needs a break, you fill in.”
‘so much beyond that’
May 10, President Anderson announced via email that the final note was ‘fabricated,’ the Collective pushed back against subsequent delegitimization of movement as a whole
Just nine days after the student organizers interrupted all normal activity on campus, Anderson wrote in a May 10 email that the ninth racist incident targeting Wells “was not a genuine threat.”
In a follow-up email sent later that same day, Anderson clarified. He said the author of the note had confessed it was “fabricated” in an attempt to draw attention to student concerns about the campus climate. Due to federal privacy laws, the PLT did not announce who the author of the note was or what punitive action was taken against them, according to Minnesota Public Radio.
The Collective promptly responded to Anderson’s announcement in an email to the community – they emphasized the focus of the movement was “transforming the institution” as a whole, not just eradicating isolated instances of hate speech.
Whirl added that institutional racism at St. Olaf goes far beyond the incidents that sparked the protests.
Ted Thornhill, a former St. Olaf professor who studies race and racism, echoed the students’ assessment of the fabricated note.
“It doesn’t matter if it was [fabricated],” he said.
“It changes absolutely nothing about the nature of the institution,” he added. “Nor does it change the need for St. Olaf to make significant changes to how it operates, to create a climate on campus that is not simply diverse and inclusive, but anti-racist at its core.”
This ‘not genuine’ incident does not invalidate the experiences of others and does not invalidate institutional racism.
While the Washington Post, Minnesota Public Radio and Kare11 ran headlines highlighting the “hoax” in the days following Anderson’s announcement, the Collective continued their work in earnest. The organizers hosted a town hall on May 14 and worked with faculty, alumni and students to form the Task Force on Institutional Racism before the end of the semester. The Task Force examined the Collective’s demands over the summer and issued a series of recommendations to the PLT.
The rest of the campus, however, fell into silence. Even though eight other instances of hate speech had been reported that year, the announcement of the fabricated note called into question the legitimacy of the others, and the movement as a whole. It seemed everyone, including faculty, was just “waiting for the Collective to do something,” Fuentes said.
The fabricated note’s chilling effect on the movement demonstrated that the student body was disproportionately focused on isolated incidents of hate speech, Chakravarty said. The incidents themselves were only important insofar as they galvanized the protests and testified to the racist institutional structures and climate of the College, he added.
“That kind of politics focuses on trying to sanitize and sterilize the discourse, as if preventing every articulation of the N-word in the future will resolve every problem,” Chakravarty said.
Wake agreed. He wasn’t surprised when the announcement brought the movement to a sharp – and silent – standstill.
“People are always skeptical of the experiences of the oppressed, so it’s nothing new,” Wake said.
“At the same time, I think there is an expectation that the experiences of people, specifically black people, is that we’re almost designated to be the recipients of this kind of violence. That some people are just meant to take it,” Wake added.
…I think there is an expectation that the experiences of people, specifically black people, is that we’re almost designated to be thee recipients of this kind of violence. That some people are just meant to take it.
In the past two years, the College has initiated programs, hired staff and taken other steps to address 10 of the 27 demands issued by the Collective. Others, like those that involve faculty demographics and the GE curriculum, are still in progress but set to be met in coming years. Several have not been addressed at all. (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)
Anderson signed the Collective’s Terms and Conditions of Negotiation May 1, 2017, committing to consider the 27 demands proposed by student organizers.
here’s where they stand today:
1A) Remove Arne Christenson from the Advisory Board of the Institute for Freedom and Community.
In the Task Force on Institutional Racism’s final report, they wrote that Arne Christenson’s “appointment to the Advisory Board … aggravated the already significant distrust about the Institute and its funding,” and suggested increased transparency regarding the Institute’s funding and functionality. The Working Group did not address the demand. The President’s Leadership Team (PLT) responded, and said, “Denying Mr. Christenson engagement with the College because some disagree with his political beliefs violates academic freedom.”
1B) Implement mandatory racial and cultural sensitivity training for incoming students.
In order to register for 2018 Interim and Spring classes, all St. Olaf students were mandated to take a one-hour course on DiversityEdu in the fall of 2017. Faculty and staff were also required to take the course that fall. In 2018, only incoming students were required to take the course. Many students and faculty were critical of the online course. “When talking about race, the convenient one-hour DiversityEdu training doesn’t include the bigger picture of the racial dynamic of the United States, such as the historical context of 200-year old racial problems,” Ariel Mota Alves ’20 wrote in a November 2017 Manitou Messenger opinion article.
1C) Mandate Sustained Dialogue participation for student athletes, Student Government Association (SGA) executives and the Student Senate.
Sustained Dialogue – formerly funded by the Institute for Freedom and Community and operated by the Center for Multicultural and International Engagement – was discontinued and replaced by Better Angels, a program that focuses on political and ideological diversity. While some teams have discussed diversity and inclusion, St. Olaf Athletics has not addressed these topics with “mass trainings,” according to Athletic Director Ryan Bowles. The SGA Senate and Executive Team has participated in related trainings each semester, according to SGA Vice President Abbie Haug ’19. While in the past some trainings were affiliated with Sustained Dialogue, others have been facilitated by professors or other staff.
1D) Hire a "third-party" who is versed in Title VI regulations and able to facilitate dialogue about race relations.
The Working Group did not directly address this demand. They did recommend the creation of the Council for Equity and Inclusion, which was formally established in the fall of 2018 as a sustainable campus body which will oversee the College’s strategic equity and inclusion “plans and metrics,” among other efforts, according to the Council’s Progress Report.
1E) Acknowledge the institution is built on Dakota land.
While St. Olaf has not fulfilled this demand, the College is currently in talks with the City of Northfield, Carleton and the local Historical Society to designate a permanent memorial regarding the native history of the Northfield area. While not yet completed, Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity Bruce King said this should be complete by Oct. 8, 2019 – Northfield’s official Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
2A) Compose a 10-year plan to increase recruitment and retention of Black, Latinx, Asian-American, Multiracial and Non-American faculty and staff.
Those applying for faculty positions now have to provide a statement regarding how their teaching philosophy is guided by equity and inclusion, according to Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity Bruce King. The College has altered qualifications for faculty and staff applicants to facilitate a “broader applicant pool.” The Council on Equity and Inclusion is also in the beginning stages of developing the new Strategic Plan which will incorporate this demand.
2B) The College should not threaten jobs of faculty, staff and administrators who support the demands of the Collective.
The PLT responded that “the College does not engage in threats to faculty or staff when they disagree with institutional policies or actions.” Ted Thornhill, a former St. Olaf sociology professor who studies race and racism, however, disagreed. “I’m sitting here thinking right now through my head about a number of faculty who either didn’t get tenure or left because the place was intolerable for them. It was racially inhospitable, to put it nicely.”
3A, B) Reconstruct the General Education (GE) system to address the sociopolitical dimensions of race, ethnicity and identity.
A March 2019 draft from the GE Task Force proposed a new “Power, Inequity and Race” GE requirement. An introductory course in Women’s and Gender studies was not included in the draft as stipulated in this demand.
3C) MCD/G courses must require students to attend Diversity Celebrations Committee (DCC) events.
The Working Group commended “all the ways in which various courses already incorporate diversity in materials and pedagogy.” At press time, this demand has not been met.
3D) Courses on race/gender/sexuality/intersectionality should be taught in diverse spaces across campus.
The demand was deferred from the PLT to the Task Force and was not addressed by the Working Group.
4A) Establish a zero tolerance policy on racial, sexual, homophobic epithets for faculty, staff and students.
The Task Force did not fully endorse this demand so as to ensure it would not cause further barriers to reporting racist incidents. When someone commits one of these acts they are subject to the college’s conduct review process, the Bias Incident Response Team wrote in an email to the Manitou Messenger.
4B) Redefine "hate crime" to more closely reflect the federal definition.
The PLT responded by saying the College will maintain its current definition of “hate crime,” because it is “widely used among other institutions” and is based off federal regulations.
5A) Create a more accessible Discrimination and Bias Report Form.
The Discrimination and Bias Report Form was developed during the summer of 2017 and updated in November 2018. Those changes – driven by suggestions made by SGA Senate – included asking reporting parties to provide “detailed information” rather than be “concise” when recounting the incident, according to the Response Team. Some faculty and students have expressed, however, that it remains unclear how information and data gathered from the form are utilized or followed-up on. In a 2018 Student Senate referendum, Jauza Khaleel ’18 and Tim Bergeland ’18, SGA President and Vice President, respectively, called for an equity audit to, among other things, “critically ascertain how the bias incident reporting mechanism is used.”
5B) Ensure there is transparency between victims of hate crimes and the administration.
When someone reports an incident through the Discrimination and Bias Report Form, it is sent to all members of the Bias and Incident Response Team. Dean of Students, Rosalyn Eaton ’87, typically reaches out to the reporting student immediately, according to the Team. While the Team works to keep the reporting student informed regarding the process, they wrote they are often “unable to provide all of the details due to privacy policies.”
5C) Issue semester updates from the President's Office about specific actions that have been taken to address the Collective's demands and improve campus climate.
The Council on Equity and Inclusion’s first formal “Progress Report” was hyperlinked in a Nov. 28, 2018 email to the community sent by Council Chair Marci Sorter. Collective member Tamira Fuentes ’19, among others, commented that tracking the Council’s progess remains difficult. “If I didn’t have the network that I have I would have never known it existed,” Fuentes said. “Students don’t even know how to gauge this progress if they are not part of the process,” she added.
6A) Hire a person of color to work at the Boe House Counseling Center.
Boe House Counseling Center hired Nina Mattson ’95 and Saras Bhadri in the fall of 2018. Mattson has a background in working with diverse communities, while Bhadri told the Manitou Messenger she is “mindful and sensitive to culture, race and gender issues, as I myself am a racial minority.”
6B) The College should meet the financial needs of students of color through merit and need-based scholarships.
The PLT responded that “The College already meets the demonstrated financial need of every student it enrolls.” The student experiences that necessitated this demand suggest this isn’t always the case.
6C) Create more programs for students of color other than Student Support Services (SSS) and TRIO – not all students are eligible to access these resources.
While no new programming was implimented in the last two years, Taylor Center Director María Pabón said there will be a new program for incoming students of color. Pabón also said the Center is working to develop more programming and resources for DACA students.
6D) Increase resources for students of color by increasing academic networking support in collaboration with the Piper Center, among other efforts.
The Piper Center for Vocation and Career co-facilitated an event in the Twin Cities for alumni and students of color, two identity and career panels (’17-’18) and four “Beyond the Hill” events (’18-’19) for students of color, international students, students with diabilities and LGBTQ+ students.
6E) Increase resources allocated for the recruitment of students of color.
Wenie Lado ’16 was made the Assistant Dean of Admissions and Multicultural Recruitment in May of 2018. In the past year, the Enrollment Tracking Group also removed the annual enrollment deposit, reduced the initial enrollment deposit to $300, from $600 for first year and transfer students, and to $150 for Pell-eligible students. The International Student Support Interest Group formed an Emergency Fund and began providing food during breaks when other food service options are limited.
6F) Provide International Student Counselors with a stipend.
Beginning in the fall of 2019, International Student Counselors will be compensated for their work, according to Taylor Center Director María Pabón.
6G) Provide transparency in the Center for Multicultural and International Engagement's budget (now known as the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion).
None of the responding parties offered concrete steps in regards to this demand. The Working Group did recommend the Taylor Center be staffed by three full time professionals, who will work with international students, domestic students and those who identify as LGBTQ+. There are now three staff members who work generally with these three groups, according to Director María Pabón.
7A) Immediately handle situations wherein a student requests a new roommate because of discrimination. The perpertrator in the situation should be removed from the room.
“Each situation is different, and that informs how Residence Life staff members respond,” according to the Bias Incident Response Team. Pamela McDowell will always ask the reporting student what they would like to happen, the Team wrote – sometimes students want to move right away without speaking to the roommate, sometimes they want a mediated conversation, sometimes they want the roommate moved to a different space.
7B) Ensure the Director of Residence Life witholds names of reported discrimination perpetrators when offering a list of potential new roommates to students of color requesting a new roommate.
Residence Life would not place a reporting student with a new roommate who has been discriminatory toward a roommate in the past, according to the Bias Incident Response Team.
8A) Seek permission from students for the use of their images, quotes or other materials in marketing and communications assets.
When taking candid images or footage of students, Marketing and Communications photographers “work to ask for students’ names/permission when possible,” according to Fernando Sevilla, the Associate Director of Digital Design. He added that if a student reaches out to request their photo not be used in College materials, it would be removed or replaced.
8B) Change the rhetoric used by Marketing and Communications, including adding captions and photo credits to images.
Chief Marketing Officer Katie Warren said the department thinks critically for certain students to be profiled or included in marketing materials. They also include captions and student names when students are readily apparent in materials. In addition, the department is working with Admissions to go through all of their materials with the demands in mind.
10 of 27 demands met
Others in progress or unaddressed amidst creation of three institutional bodies, two years of recommendations
“One of the institution’s biggest fallback arguments was that whenever a protest happened, we never had any concrete goals,” Cathro said. “President Anderson would say, ‘if you want change you need to tell me exact steps to take, you need to give me something concrete.’ So, that’s exactly what we did.”
Williams and several others began to draft a list of demands for the administration around the time of the student meeting in CAD, Collective member Junior Avalos ’18 said. Wetzel said that for about two weeks, the Collective met “nonstop” to pore over the 14-page document.
The Collective’s Drafting Committee – made up of Chakravarty, Wake, Avalos, Nouf AL-Masrafi ’19, Prabana Mendis ’18 and Ashley Smith ’18 – wrote a list of 27 demands which they later presented to the PLT and Board of Regents.
Anderson later demonstrated, however, that the PLT was skeptical of the Collective’s proposed plan of action. In particular, Anderson wrote that 18 of the 29 original demands were “already addressed or on the fast track to be addressed,” in a May 22 letter to the Drafting Committee.
After tracking progress made on the Demands in the last two years, the Manitou Messenger found conflicting results: only 10 of the 27 final demands have been directly addressed, while eight remain unaddressed. The last eight are up for debate: they have been only partially addressed, or the College objected to them at their origin.
Demands met by the College so far include 1B, 5C, 6A, 6C, 6D, 6E, 6F, 7B, 8A and 8B. Compared to the rest of the document, most of these are relatively straightforward – King referred to them as ‘low hanging fruit.’ They call for a new hire, new programming or revised College policy.
For instance, in the past two years, the College hired two counselors of color at the Boe House Counseling Center and the Piper Center for Vocation and Career facilitated multiple networking events for students and alumni of color, fulfilling demands 6A and 6D.
Additionally, the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion will begin paying International Student Counselors next fall, according to Center director María Pabón. The Taylor Center will also roll out additional orientation programming for incoming students of color in collaboration with the Academic Support Center, TRIO McNair and the Piper Center, satisfying demands 6F and 6C, respectively.
When President Anderson signed the Collective’s Terms and Conditions of Negotiation after hours of deliberation and negotiations, students stood and gave a standing ovation. Collective member Junior Avalos ’18 said the support and momentum provided by the greater student body during the central sit-ins, sharply decreased once Anderson agreed to the Terms. (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)
Other demands have proven more complicated to fulfill. While the College has worked to address a majority of them in some way, some students and faculty remain critical of the final result.
Article 1B, for example, calls for the implementation of a racial and cultural sensitivity training and was addressed when the College required students to complete a DiversityEdu training before registering for classes in the fall of 2017. Students and faculty raised concerns, however, about the effectiveness of the program – they said it focused more on political correctness and individual acts of racism rather than institutional racism. On Nov. 13, 2017, remaining members of the Collective hosted a poster-making session, where students documented their concerns. One of the posters read “you’re still racist, even after one hour.” Another read “microaggressions aren’t the only form of racism.”
Other demands are still being considered by stakeholders across the College or are projected to be fulfilled in the coming months and years. Demands 3A and 3B, for example, call for the reconstruction of the General Education (GE) curriculum to “address the sociopolitical dimensions of race, ethnicity and identity.” The Collective called for two new GE requirements, one regarding race and the other regarding gender. The GE Task Force released a March 2019 draft of the new GE curriculum that does include a “Power, Inequity, and Race” requirement, but lacks one on gender. Already two years into updating the GE curriculum, current students will not be at St. Olaf when they go into effect.
Eight demands have not been acted upon.
Principal among these demands are 1A, which calls for the removal of Arne Christenson from the Advisory Board of the Institute for Freedom and Community due to his involvement with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group. The PLT said Christenson does not represent AIPAC on the Institute’s Advisory Board and that removing him on the basis of his politics would violate academic freedom.
King said he was unsure the fulfillment of some demands, including 1A, would actually improve the College – one of the biggest challenges so far is figuring out how to “change the air” of the institution.
“We’re all breathing the same air, and as much progress as we make with policies and changes and hiring, St. Olaf is still a very white place,” King said.
Other initiatives and groups at the College are working to act on issues the Collective raised, although they do not necessarily address specific demands. The Center for Multicultural and International Engagement (CMIE), for example, was incorporated into the Student Life Division to make it a more central component of campus life. CMIE was also renamed the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion when Glenn Taylor ’73 and his wife Myretta pledged a $1 million gift to the College. The gift aims to reach more international students, students of color and LGBTQ+ students by ensuring “the St. Olaf culture supports students’ well-being and success,” Glenn wrote in an email to the Manitou Messenger. María Pabón began her new role as Center director on Jan. 21, and hopes to make the Taylor Center a more intersectional and accessible space.
Just under a month before the formation of the Collective, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded St. Olaf the “To Include is To Excel” (TITE) grant. The $800,000 grant facilitates faculty trainings and curriculum initiatives to “serve a changing student body,” according to the St. Olaf website. In the two years since the grant was awarded, it has funded 37 projects that focus on improving learning environments for underrepresented students, according to the St. Olaf website. Together, TITE and the Taylor Center address elements of the Collective’s initial concerns that called for increased resources and an improved campus environment for students of color.
Several members of the Collective connected the nine racist notes at St. Olaf to the election of Donald Trump. They said the election empowered hateful speech that was formerly considered taboo. Throughout the election season, student organizers held several gatherings in Buntrock Commons in protest of Trump’s election as President. Abdul Wake ’19 is pictured above during one of these student rallies. (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)
his ‘own task force’
The College has created three different groups tasked with addressing equity and inclusion at St. Olaf in the years since the 2017 student movement. The first of these, the Task Force on Institutional Racism, was formed according to the Collective’s wishes. The other two – the Working Group on Equity and Inclusion and the Council on Equity and Inclusion – lacked transparency in their formation and deliberations, many students and faculty said.
The Task Force met throughout the summer following the 2017 protests to examine the Collective’s Demands and provide a final report of recommendations to the PLT. Chakravarty noted that while he was happy with the Task Force’s recommendations, they lost “some degree of legitimacy” because it was not signed by General Counsel Carl Lehmann ’91, the one member of the PLT present in the group.
In an email to the Manitou Messenger, Lehmann said he did not reject the Task Force’s recommendations as a whole, but thought the group made criticisms of the College without properly engaging with students, faculty, staff and Collective members.
Chakravarty, along with Fuentes, Cathro and Wake, also noted that before the group began their work, Anderson made it clear he didn’t think the Collective’s proposed Task Force was necessary. In a May 22 letter addressed to the Drafting Committee, Anderson wrote that instead of the Task Force, he anticipated appointing a different committee led by members of the Board of Regents.
Three months later, on Sept. 4, the Task Force released their recommendations to the PLT and student body. Sept. 6, Anderson responded, and wrote that a Working Group should be created as recommended by the Task Force, and that it would be “premature to respond to the Task Force’s other recommendations.” While the Task Force did propose the creation of a Working Group, members of the Task Force and Collective were critical that Anderson hand-picked the members himself.
“We didn’t want the administration [to be] the sole people to pick the Working Group,” Task Force student representative Susu Almousa ’19 said. “We do believe that some sort of force needs to exist to ensure that change is occurring, but we don’t agree with the way that it was done.”
We didn’t want the administration [to be] the sole people to pick the Working Group … We do believe that some sort of force needs to exist to ensure that change is occurring, but we don’t agree with the way that it was done.
Thornhill noted the importance of incorporating student and faculty voices, including those highly critical of the institution, when creating groups charged with examining racism. He said a group sympathetic to the administration is not likely to create “the kind of meaningful, durable, sustainable, anti-racist changes protestors are hoping for.”
Seven months after its formation, on May 1, 2018, the Working Group issued a document of recommendations to the PLT. The report – based on survey data, stakeholder meetings and outside expertise – highlighted three main recommendations. The first two included developing a plan for increasing equity and inclusion, to be embedded in the College’s goal-setting framework and committing necessary resources to pursue other goals outlined in the report.
The last main recommendation was the creation of yet another group to pursue equity and inclusion at the College. This time, it was named the Council on Equity and Inclusion and chaired by Sortor. Roughly half of the students, faculty, staff and alumni on the Council were elected by various committees, while others were selected by administrators.
Following the Tomson sit-in, students played music on large speakers in the Tomson Atrium, where they danced and sang after more than six hours of negotiations with the President’s Leadership Team. (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)
Members of the Collective were critical of both the Working Group and Council because they felt the Working Group’s recommendations did not thoroughly or critically engage with their demands. They also voiced that, despite the creation of three different groups, many students of color still experience campus the same way they did before the protests.
David Embrick, a professor at the University of Connecticut who studies contemporary forms of racism, said universities commonly “wait students out.”
He said the four-year undergraduate cycle erases institutional memory of events and demands involved in student movements. He saw this happen at Loyola University during his time there. King said durable change often takes longer than students expect.
The Council hyperlinked their first official progress report in an email to students, faculty and staff Nov. 28, 2018 outlining the College’s new or pre-existing efforts to address racism on campus. These include piloting an expanded “Connect for Success” program for first generation students, faculty and staff workshops addressing racism and an updated Bias Incident Reporting Form. The form was altered so students can now anonymously report incidents of bias. The College has also tried to make the process more transparent.
Fuentes said, however, that not only was the report difficult to find, but the College’s equity and inclusion work more generally is inaccessible to students.
“If I didn’t have the network that I have, I would have never known [the progress report] existed,” Fuentes said. “Students don’t even know how to gauge this process if they are not part of the process. It’s very masterfully done in where they’re acting as if they’re working, but no one knows what they’re doing and no one knows where to follow, who to go to, which questions to ask.”
Manny Cardoza ’19 stands on the second floor of Tomson Hall, overlooking the packed atrium. On May 1, the day of the Tomson sit-in, students arrived at 7:50 a.m., prepared to wait until student organizers came to an agreement with President Anderson. (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)
‘Buzz words’ – the st. olaf brand
As St. Olaf works to diversify its student body, Marketing and Communications (MarCom) “walks a fine line” when recruiting students from marginalized groups and avoiding overrepresentation in their materials, Associate Director of Digital Design Fernando Sevilla said.
Tracking a nationwide trend, St. Olaf initiated a rebranding process in June 2016 when the College hired Katie Warren ’95 as its first Chief Marketing Officer. With digital engagement and storytelling at the center of the branding initiative, MarCom used survey data and focus groups to identify the essence of St. Olaf.
“The net of it overall is that we have a really strong community, that we have a community that helps empower students and engages them,” Warren said.
The 2017 demonstrations exemplified the way “St. Olaf empowers and challenges students to want to shape the world,” Warren added. She said MarCom incorporated students’ desire for change into the brand, and referenced the “Oles can. Oles will” campaign, which began in the fall of 2017 and emphasizes student and alumni goals and achievements.
Cathro, however, emphasized that many students of color experience a very different version of St. Olaf than MarCom casts.
I did not feel like I was a part of the community at Olaf, and that sentiment was shared by lots of people – that’s why we protested.
“I did not feel like I was a part of the community at Olaf, and that sentiment was shared by lots of people – that’s why we protested,” he said.
As the gap widens between students’ assessment of the College and MarCom’s projection of it as an empowered and engaged community, terms like diversity, equity and inclusion begin to feel like “lip service,” Cathro said.
Section eight of the Collective’s Demands addressed the organizers’ frustration with how students of color are represented in College marketing materials – they demanded that MarCom not publish images, videos or quotes without students’ permission. They also demanded that MarCom use photo credits and detailed captions so photographed students know when, why and by whom their picture was taken. Warren said in the past two years, the department has worked to incorporate these requests.
Don Williams ’17 stands in front of the student body in the atrium of Tomson Hall. Reporters from the Star Tribune, among other outlets, flooded the campus May 1, along with students from Carleton, alumni, Northfield residents and more. (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)
Among other things, student leaders said these practices are integral to ensuring marketing materials reflect an accurate breakdown of campus demographics.
“Institutions historically [and] currently like to use images of people of color [and] international students to make you feel like you can belong there, you should bring your money there, that you’ll be accepted there,” Whirl said.
When Whirl first moved to campus, she said her “bubble burst” because there were substantially fewer students of color at St. Olaf than she expected.
She said based on the materials she was given and the admissions tour she took, she thought more students of color attend St. Olaf than actually do – in 2018, 68.9 percent of students were white, while 19.9 percent were domestic students of color. The last 10 percent were international students, according to the 2018 fall student census. These percentages are slightly below those of peer institutions, according to the Council’s progress report.
Warren said that while MarCom aims to accurately reflect the College both in terms of demographics and environment, she recognizes the department doesn’t always get it 100 percent right.
In the aftermath of the 2017 protests, Fuentes said words like “diverse,” “multicultural,” “equity” and “inclusion” flooded the College. She, among others, noted this language is now ubiquitous, whether found on the St. Olaf website, in the text of campus-wide emails or on the walls of College buildings themselves.
Institutions historically [and] currently like to use images of people of color [and] international students to make you feel like you can belong there, you should bring your money there, that you’ll be accepted there.
This has been especially true given MarCom’s responsibility to disseminate information about the three groups formed after the 2017 protests. Most students have trouble identifying tangible progress when these updates are many pages long, riddled with bureaucratic language and grouped en masse under umbrella terms like ‘diversity,’ ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion.’ Communicating these groups’ work to students and faculty has always been a challenge for the College, Warren said.
Embrick, who studies how diversity language is used by institutions, said that when a college rebrands as diverse or inclusive, or as caring about diversity and inclusion, this can be used to avoid fully committing to diversity that implicates power, privilege and identity.
“Diversity is a very useful catch-all language, it’s ambiguous, it feels good,” Embrick said.
While the language of diversity incorporates race, gender and sexuality, it also gives a platform to diversity of perspective, among other things, Embrick added.
The Working Group directed some attention towards political diversity in their deliberations despite that it was formed in the wake of protests against racism. During their stakeholder meetings, the group met with members of Turning Point USA, a conservative student organization. The group found there is a “minority group of conservatives on campus and some of them feel oppressed,” Working Group member Glenn Taylor ’73 said at a May 1, 2018 Working Group Town Hall.
“That’s the danger of embodying this type of language, right? It opens up these doors to not addressing serious issues that are on the table – historical issues – in favor of things like this,” Embrick said.
King said the College knows it is not enough to recruit underrepresented students if they aren’t actively welcomed once they arrive. For this reason, St. Olaf has moved to emphasize equity and inclusion rather than diversity, he said.
Cathro said the College aggressively markets equity and inclusion initiatives, but as a result, ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion’ themselves have become nothing more than “buzz words.” Not only do these marketing practices disillusion incoming students of color, but they do nothing to acknowledge or change the institutionalized inequities at hand, he added. Chakravarty agreed.
He said that because this language ceaselessly identifies certain students as needing to be included because of their difference, they are “thereby excluded in their very inclusion.”
Embrick and Thornhill both said a better approach would be using the language of anti-racism. This more effectively implicates institutions themselves, and how they “perpetuate racism, sexism and homophobia,” Embrick said.
‘Behind closed doors’
Outspoken students face code violations, other barriers surrounding 2017 protests
When marginalized students publically object to discrimination, their lives at St. Olaf are irreversibly affected, nine sources interviewed for this story said. Some of these sources said they have faced consequences for acts of protest, ranging from racist slights in class and extracurriculars, to formal disciplinary action.
These obstacles are connected to the “overwhelmingly white” environment students of color find when they arrive on the St. Olaf campus, Thornhill said.
In a May 15, 2017 report written by seven members and friends of the Collective, the students highlight elements of the College’s racist history, tracking events between 1874-2017. Many of the report’s accounts cited the archives of the Manitou Messenger, which were found to be riddled with uses of the N-word, racist articles and accounts of racism written by people of color.
The report also said that in 2013, comments including “You only got into st olaf cuz of affirmative action u dumb f***,” “Not wasting my tuition money on ‘diverse’ kids,” and “What’s up with all the n*****,” were written on a public poster. Made by a group of students named St. Olaf Race Matters, the poster posed the question: “What can St. Olaf do to increase diversity?” The Collective’s report said these racist comments sparked the Enough! Campaign, which held a walk-out, rally and presented demands to Anderson May 1, 2013 – exactly four years before the Tomson sit-in.
St. Olaf’s racist legacy continues today in both overt and subtle forms that wear on the “non-white, racialized body,” Thornhill said. “That can have negative mental health effects, physiological effects, academic effects, depressive effects.”
Some students said when they’ve openly opposed the hostile environment Thornhill describes, they have been met with persistent patterns of discrimination and harassment. Cathro tied this to the idea of the ‘Ideal Ole’.
“The persona that’s favored at Olaf is a smart, liberal but not radical, passive person, who doesn’t push an agenda,” Cathro said. “… You blend in, you find your niche, you graduate.”
In the fall of 2017, Wetzel said they continued to openly speak and write about the protests – including in their role as a student employee in Admissions.
[Microaggressions] accrete and calcify and build up, and then the weight of them collectively is what wears on the non-white, racialized body. That can have negative mental health affects, physiological effects, depressive effects.
Wetzel recounted a disorienting meeting with an Admissions staff member they weren’t familiar with, who asked if Wetzel was “genuine.” Wetzel was initially confused, but felt the individual insinuated their outspokenness regarding institutional racism might interfere with their ability to engage with prospective students.
“It was a one-on-one thing and no one else was there, so I couldn’t be like, ‘yo I was just threatened with being fired,’ because he didn’t really say that,” Wetzel said. “But, it was very heavily implied.”
These situations are difficult to process and prove, because they typically take place “behind closed doors,” Collective member Nikki Lewis ’18 said.
In a May 10, 2018 letter to the editor, Task Force member and English professor Joan Hepburn raised concerns that the administration was secretively punishing student activists. She asked if any student leaders were denied campus jobs or internships, issued code violations, evicted, expelled or otherwise punished for their activism. A “culture of intimidation” followed the Collective’s movement, Hepburn wrote in her piece, a statement echoed by those involved.
Just before the protests, Abdul Wake was elected as Coordinator of the Political Awareness Committee (PAC), a nonpartisan branch of the Student Government Association (SGA) that hosts political speakers and events on campus. When Wake returned to St. Olaf after the protests in the fall of 2017, he said the former staff advisor of PAC, Catherine Paro, said he seemed preoccupied by his work with the Collective, and suggested he step down so he could fully focus on it. Paro said she could not comment because professional ethics keep her from discussing former students with reporters.
Abdul Wake ’19 (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)
Wake said this was one of several incidents when College staff questioned his commitment to PAC. Director of Student Activities Kris Vatter said it is possible this happened if Wake wasn’t fulfilling his role as stated in the SGA bylaws. The tension continued, culminating at a March 14, 2018 lecture by Thornhill.
During his talk, Thornhill discussed his research on white supremacy in higher education. He recalled speaking about how institutions themselves and right-wing student organizations jointly form a system that disadvantages people of color.
At the end of the event, Wake thanked the crowd for coming, and then added: “We’d also like to thank the Hitler Youth for attending tonight.”
Three weeks later, someone who felt targeted by Wake’s statement filed an incident report, and the College charged Wake with threatening or endangering someone’s health or safety under Article VI of the Student Code of Conduct. Wake said he did not mean to aim his comment at any specific individuals.
Wake contacted Twin Cities attorney Meg Kane seeking legal advice. Kane later told the Manitou Messenger she saw this situation as a free speech issue that came on the heels of student protests regarding race relations at St. Olaf. She admitted, however, that private colleges are able to limit speech in ways public ones are not.
According to Kane, school officials immediately reversed the charge when she showed up with Wake to a disciplinary hearing.
“It seemed to me that they were seeking to discipline until an attorney stepped in, at which point they immediately backtracked,” she said. Lehmann said the school must follow certain protocols in response to allegations brought by students.
Kane admits that Wake’s statement was inflammatory, but said it did not amount to harassment.
Students of color aren’t the only ones who face backlash from the St. Olaf community for assertive acts of protest.
Cosimo Pori – who identifies as queer and non-binary – was charged with violating the Code of Conduct four times between October 2016 and May 2017. Charges for the first violation were dismissed after Pori was found not responsible. The second and third violations were the result of a prolonged confrontation with another student, Griffin Edwards ’17, about a Manitou Messenger opinion article. In it, Edwards argued for greater political diversity in PAC speakers.
Cosimo Pori (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)
“The American political sphere has Democrats, Republicans, communists, libertarians, Nazis, evangelicals, Greens and even monarchists. Why should PAC’s speakers not reflect this ideological diversity?” Edwards wrote.
Pori said they were astounded by what they perceived to be Edwards’ validation of Nazis within the contemporary political sphere.
Edwards later alleged Pori called him a “Nazi sympathizer” on two social media sites, and that Pori harassed him in person, too.
Pori admits to expressing their shock at Edwards’ statement online and intentionally walking slowly in front of him down a staircase, among other interactions, but disagrees with his characterization of these incidents as harassment or bullying. The College charged Pori twice with conduct that threatens or endangers someone’s health or safety, and later issued them a No Contact Order on April 18, 2017. Edwards did not respond to the Manitou Messenger’s questions.
Pori’s fourth code violation was issued in response to an incident report filed the night of the April 29 Buntrock sit-in.
“As the events in May began to unfold, I had a few moments of reservation about participating just because of where I was with the administration,” Pori said. Nonetheless, Pori stood with other students by the Buntrock entrance, folded their arms through the door handles and blocked people from exiting.
“In the process of blocking the doors, I had two students try to physically push through me to get out … I told them I wasn’t going to let them through,” Pori said.
May 15, Pori was notified they were being charged with violating school policy for participating in a disruptive campus demonstration and the intentional obstruction of free movement. May 17, Pori was suspended on an interim basis for their involvement in four disciplinary incidents involving “harassing/bullying conduct,” and had until 3 p.m. that day to gather their belongings and leave campus, according to a letter from former Vice President for Student Life Greg Kneser. Pori was later told they would be allowed to reapply for admission to St. Olaf in September 2018.
If my life on the St. Olaf campus becomes compromised and inconvenienced because a student felt that standing up to justice is a threat, so be it.
Lehmann said seven cases of discipline resulted from the student protests, and most regarded incidents where students prevented others from leaving Buntrock, which he said is an explicit violation of College policy. Three of those cases were found to have merit, he said. Lehmann added that the College made an intentional decision during the student movement to not initiate disciplinary action against students involved. He added, however, that when students bring complaints of harassment or bullying to the College, the College must respond. Dean of Students Rosalyn Eaton ’87 emphasized students were not disciplined simply for protesting, but rather for deciding to violate College policy.
Pori never returned to St. Olaf, but they do stand by their actions that year – in each instance, Pori felt they stood up against hateful rhetoric or instances of discrimination.
“If I am going to be on probation for standing up for what is right, so be it. If my life on the St. Olaf campus becomes compromised and inconvenienced because a student felt that standing up to injustice is a threat, so be it,” Pori wrote in a letter of appeal to Eaton. “I object, but I will never apologize.”
Consistently outspoken students like Wake and Pori faced the most consequences for their acts of protest, Cathro said.
“That’s where the inequity lies, if you play by the rules, you’re fine, if you don’t, you’re screwed.”
Througout the May 1 Tomson sit-in, students flowed in to and out of Tomson 280 depending on where the negotiations were taking place. At several points while waiting for a response from the PLT, students cranked the volume of a loud speaker and danced together in front of the crowd. (Avery Ellfeldt/Manitou Messenger)
the cycle continues
April 25, 2017, students of color gathered in the Center for Arts and Dance (CAD) after Don Williams found a note on their car with the N-word scribbled on it.
April 25, 2019 – the same day two years later – Heather Mac Donald, a conservative author, took the stage of Viking Theater to deliver a lecture on her new book, “The Diversity Delusion.” During the lecture, Mac Donald discussed her belief that nationwide, identity politics are interfering with intellectual growth, and universities are teaching students to “see bigotry where none exists.” Her talk was hosted by the St. Olaf College Republicans with support from the Institute for Freedom and Community.
Mac Donald argued diversity initiatives are, by and large, costly for institutions and students. She listed the Taylor Center for Equity and Inclusion and the job titles of Bruce King and Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Director of Race and Ethnic Studies, as just several examples of St. Olaf’s “financial burdens.”
The event was scheduled to begin halfway through the SGA Task Force Against Racism’s “Two Years Later: What Now?” event. This meeting, led by Fuentes, aimed to reflect on the 2017 protests and assess the current state of the College.
In response to an email announcement of the Mac Donald lecture, 25 faculty members responded, with the vast majority in firm opposition. Some posed concerns that speakers like Mac Donald degrade campus dialogue and spread hateful rhetoric. Others noted the irony that Mac Donald’s lecture was scheduled on the two year anniversary of Williams’ meeting in CAD.
The following day, the PLT wrote to students, faculty and staff voicing the importance of hearing viewpoints that may “threaten our identity.” They added that the College’s commitment to equity and inclusion “stands firm.”
Associate Professor of Spanish Kristina Medina-Villariño wrote in response that the PLT’s decision reflects the “opposite of commitment to equity and inclusion.”
“There is an expectation that we are valued as people, but that’s only rhetorical, its abstract,” Wake said. “It has no bearing on the way that the school cares for and shows that care.”
Students and faculty of color continue to express concerns to the College about where the institution stands today. Fuentes said the reason St. Olaf continues to have the same conversations about speakers, free speech, diversity and more is the speed at which white supremacy evolves.
She added the themes playing out in higher education nationwide highlight a growing tension between diversity of identity and diversity of opinion, between the right and the left and between the past and the present.
What emerges from it all, Fuentes said, is the question people often forget to ask:
“Who has the power?”
Editor’s note: The online version was updated from the print version in wording and image placement. It was also updated to included Griffin Edwards’ name and response to a request for comment by the Manitou Messenger.
Sam Carlen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Editors responsible for this story: Anders Mattson (email@example.com), Sam Carlen (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Grace Peacore (email@example.com)
Online version designed by:
Danny Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)