Working Group established with little transparency

President David Anderson ’74 officially agreed to the Collective for Change on the Hill’s Terms and Conditions of Negotiation on May 1, 2017.

On Aug. 30 the President’s Leadership Team (PLT) released an update regarding further steps the College has taken toward addressing the Collective’s demands and “creating and sustaining a welcoming, inclusive, bias-free environment at St. Olaf College.” Some of these steps include new and additional race and bias training for the community, an updated Bias Incident Reporting and Process and a new Interim Director for the Center for Multicultural and International Engagement. The College is also beginning a collaborative project called “To Include is to Excel” with an $800,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Also included in the Collective’s Terms and Conditions of Negotiation was the creation of the Task Force on Institutional Racism, which met throughout the summer to discuss institutional and individual racism at the college.

The Task Force consisted of three students, two faculty members, two alumni and General Counsel Carl Lehmann ’91 of the PLT. In the spring, students applied to be on the Task Force by submitting applications to the Collective, who made these applications public. The student body then voted in a primary and final election, selecting Susu Almousa ’19, Atefeh Alavi ’20 and Yishu Dai ’18 to represent students on the Task Force.

“Our main task was to review the Collective’s demands that had been presented and to take into consideration those demands,” Almousa said. “Plus, [to consider] the PLT’s additional responses to them to see if we could make recommendations for change towards combating institutional racism.”

The Task Force met weekly throughout the summer on Tuesday evenings, where they discussed the 27 different demands brought forth by the Collective during the protests in late April and May of last spring. Each of the Collective’s demands address institutional racism manifested at St. Olaf in different forms.

The last month of Task Force meetings was devoted to developing a final document that would summarize the Collective’s demands, the Task Force’s discussions per demand, as well as their shared suggestions to the PLT. The report of the St. Olaf Task Force on Institutional Racism was finalized Sept. 1 and was sent to the student body via email on Sept. 24. Along with suggestions specific to each demand, the Task Force made one general recommendation to the PLT.

The report read, “One of our overall recommendations as a Task Force is the formation of a Title VI Working Group that will follow up on these policies and practices, as well as talk with various members and stakeholders of the College to gather information about current practices, policies and needs of the College relating to these issues.”

On Sept. 6, the PLT responded to the report via email to the St. Olaf community. The response agreed with the Task Force that a Work- ing Group should be created, and that because this group would form soon, it would be “premature to respond to the Task Force’s other recommendations.” While the Task Force did propose the creation of another working body to implement change in the near future, both members of the Task Force and the Collective voiced disappointment with the PLT’s response to the suggestions put forth.

“The assumption was that the Task Force report would be taken into consideration … it’s clear that [it] was not taken seriously or maybe even considered by the PLT or [President Anderson],” Task Force Faculty Co-chair Chris Chiappari said. “We spent the summer doing that [work] and the way in which the email was presented it made it seem like we were just talking to ourselves and not doing what we were supposed to do. That was disrespectful to the Task Force, the members of it and our work.”

On Sept. 25, Anderson informed the community via email that the The Working Group on Equity and Inclusion had been formed. The Working Group consists of college regents, staff members, alumni, faculty, guest faculty and two students. According to the PLT’s email response, one goal of the working group will be to address “activities that the Task Force did not undertake,” and will aim to include more voices in the conversation.

“When you comprise a working group you want to try and hit all the constituencies of the college,” Working Group member and Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity Bruce King said.

Representatives of both the Collective and Task Force also expressed uncertainty regarding how the Working Group was formed.

“We feel like it should have been a little more transparent in regards to who they were going to chose to be on the Working Group,” Collective member Ashley Smith ’19 said. “It was kind of like they created the group and didn’t tell students, students couldn’t apply, students couldn’t choose … It seems very much like it’s not for students to really have a lot of power and say in.”

Smith, a statement by the Collective, Chiappari and Almousa each touched on a lack of transparency and collaboration on the behalf of the PLT during this process. It was not anticipated that the Working Group would be selected solely by administration, as both the Task Force and the Collective believed more groups and individuals would be involved.

“Throughout our entire document we really stressed the idea of transparency and the ability to elect as a whole,” Almousa said. “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.”

Chiappari expressed similar concerns.

“There’s been some misrepresentation from the beginning on the part of President Anderson and the PLT … The way it was characterized by the PLT [is] just not true. They make it sound like we agreed on the working group they proposed,” Chiappari said.

In response, King emphasized that all members of the Working Group will be involved with other stakeholders at the college on these issues. In this way, Working Group members will serve as community representatives and channels for the expression of different voices and opinions.

“I can say that we’re going to be very hopeful and optimistic in terms of what the Working Group will do, hoping that they keep the recommendations in mind, because we did put a lot of time and effort into it and tried to take into account a lot of different voices when writing those,” Almousa said. “I can tell you that I personally felt a little hurt by the fact that it was a pretty blatant dismissal of our work.” 

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