Friday August 21, 2020
By Ryan Faircloth
St. Olaf, St. Thomas and Carleton grapple with how to improve campus climate.
St. Olaf College is among the Minnesota private colleges grappling with racism and campus climate. Here, St. Olaf College President David R. Anderson spoke with students in 2017 after incidents of racial hate happened on campus/.ELIZABETH FLORES •
At St. Olaf College, a departing Black professor said she taught “in constant fear” of white students, knowing if she angered them, “it could mean my job.”
Black and Somali students at the University of St. Thomas say they have been singled out by the college’s public safety officers and forced to show identification.
Carleton College alumni are threatening to withhold donations out of frustration with the school’s response to campus racism and the death of George Floyd.
Many students and alumni of these Minnesota private colleges say they are fed up with the prepared statements, town halls and commissions that are formed in the wake of racist incidents but rarely lead to lasting change. They have no more patience for lip service and are calling on the schools to become more welcoming to students and faculty of color. Some are even demanding new leadership.
“The kind of problems that students are experiencing on campus, they shouldn’t have to deal with, period,” said Ainsley LeSure, a professor at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. “Institutions need to take responsibility for their role in a bigger community.”
LeSure, who is Black, graduated from Carleton College in 2005. She recalled that many of her peers assumed the coursework was too difficult for her without knowing her background. It was not as difficult for them, she recalls them saying, because they went to a “really good high school.”
Such microaggressions are common at these private colleges, according to Black students and faculty. Even worse, they say white students and staff still get away with racial insults, and Black faculty face pushback in the classroom.
Colleges nationwide are grappling with how to combat institutional racism and improve campus climate. Carleton, St. Thomas and St. Olaf leaders have already committed to some changes and are weighing long-term actions.
“We’re living in a time of really heightened awareness of injustice and inequity in the world,” said St. Olaf President David Anderson. “… Colleges aren’t immune to those kinds of injustices and inequities and that heightened awareness, and neither is St. Olaf.”
Racial tensions have been simmering at St. Olaf for years. A string of reported incidents of racist messages targeting Black students — one of which was found to be a hoax — sparked protests in 2017 and garnered national attention.
This summer, a message from a departing Black faculty member reignited discussions about race on the Northfield campus. Theater Arts professor Michelle Gibbs, who left for Illinois Wesleyan University, wrote in a message to St. Olaf faculty that she often encountered “white rage” in the classroom.
When Gibbs challenged white students, she was told she was not being “sympathetic to their needs.” If Gibbs tried to hold students accountable for racist behavior, she said they complained to administrators.
Gibbs told the Star Tribune she experienced “emotional distress” last year because of a complaint by students. Her superiors gave her no due process, and her colleagues did not support her, she said. She was told to find a teaching mentor, she said.
Another departing Black professor, Lisa Moore, wrote in a similar message that St. Olaf “embodies anti-blackness in a way that few places I have ever worked have.” An alumni-led petition with about 1,500 signatures soon surfaced, calling for the replacement of the president and provost.
“I really see the petition as a no-confidence vote,” said St. Olaf alumna Camilla Madson.
In an interview, Anderson declined to address the petition. Instead, he outlined steps St. Olaf is taking.
The school will require anti-racism training for students, faculty and staff starting this fall. It will audit its equity and inclusion plan and communications. It will also review experiences of students and early-career faculty.
“This is a difficult time to be a professor because there are all kinds of really challenging issues that … need to be addressed,” Anderson said. “I don’t think that most faculty at St. Olaf live in fear of their students, but I do think that there’s a great deal of discomfort in the conversations that are happening.”
Alleged racial profiling
At the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, some Black and Somali students say they have been racially profiled by the school’s public safety officers. The officers are not armed and cannot make arrests.
Senior Abdullahi Mohamed said a campus officer stopped him in his freshman year and told him he “looked like a suspect” she was looking for. It would not be the last time Mohamed would be stopped and asked to show his ID, he said.
Two other St. Thomas students recounted to the Star Tribune experiences where they felt racially profiled by campus officers.
Former St. Thomas public safety officer Nate Cuellar said he witnessed other officers profile Black and Somali students. In the squad room, Cuellar said officers joked about police brutality and made racially charged and sexist comments about students. He reported some incidents to human resources before he left for another job in April.
St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan disputed Cuellar’s allegations, noting that he did not report them all to human resources, and those he did report could not be substantiated. Sullivan said the school’s officers are “good people” who, like anyone, can improve their response to personal biases.
Still, St. Thomas will conduct an internal review of its public safety department to address potential racial bias. The review will include student focus groups and surveys about their experiences with campus officers.
“We are trying very hard to be anti-racist as a university and as a Department of Public Safety,” Sullivan said.
A call for action
At Carleton College in Northfield, Black student groups frustrated by the school’s response to Floyd’s death wrote to President Steven Poskanzer.
Their letter cited examples of racist comments, discrimination and faculty microaggressions toward Black students. They urged the school to better retain Black faculty, establish a Black student center and require anti-racism training.
Nearly 2,000 Carleton alumni have signed an open letter published earlier this month in support of the students. They are threatening to withhold donations and volunteer time until the school answers the students’ call and commits to building a 10-year plan for racial equity.
“I think Carleton really needs to look at itself and … see who they’re actually representing,” said Steve Touré, a Black Carleton alum who graduated in 2018.
Poskanzer said the school is listening. The college will require anti-racist training for employees, students and administrators this fall. The school’s trustees have called a special meeting for late August to discuss a potential long-term racial equity plan. And administrators are weighing action on other demands.
“This is a moment where we’ve been called to step up and live our words and make sure that we really are being the type of institution that we want to be,” Poskanzer said.