Home News College debates recognizing million-dollar donor guilty of sexual harassment

College debates recognizing million-dollar donor guilty of sexual harassment

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In December 2017 Leah Svingen ’13 received a call from General Counsel Carl Lehmann ’91, asking if she would be comfortable with St. Olaf College publicly acknowledging a $1 million gift from retired German professor LaVern Rippley, 83. He is the same professor whom the College found guilty of sexually harassing Svingen during class in the spring of 2011. She said no.

“You are asking me to decide between two bad options,” Svingen wrote in an email to Lehmann after the call. “Standing up against a man who deeply hurt me and consequently, potentially causing a donation to be turned away for an institution that I love, or silencing my voice, causing me to stand by while St. Olaf honors a retired faculty member who sexually harassed me.”

The situation highlights a problem: if a million dollar donation is tied to a sexual harassment case between a student and professor, should the College accept and publicly acknowledge the gift or lose the donation entirely?

“I wouldn’t want the College to do something, even for a million dollars, that would make her feel unwelcome coming back to campus,” Lehmann said. After he spoke with Svingen, the College decided not to accept the gift with the condition of public recognition and Rippley then pulled his donation.

A mishandled investigation

As a first year in Rippley’s German class, Svingen described herself as the recipient of unwanted attention.

“If we were learning a new adjective in German that had to do with ‘beautiful,’ or anything that had to do with a sexual reference, he would always reference me, use me in the description,” Svingen said. “He called everyone else in the class by their last name, but he always called me lieblingsmädchen,” which means ‘favorite girl.’

During her sophomore year, things got worse. Svingen said that Rippley made “more crude sexual comments” and said that he “wanted me to be the class ditz.” On one occasion he had all of the men in the class propose marriage to her.

The Manitou Messenger spoke to several of Svingen’s classmates, who gave similar accounts of the harassment.

“He would tell Leah she looked beautiful every class, but it was uncomfortable. He would often compliment the girls in the class,” Grace Atkins ’13 said, “but every class he had something to say to Leah.”

Rippley remembers things differently.

“I hope I never said that, but I may have,” he said in response to these incidents. “I can’t guarantee, because there was a time in our history when it was not objectionable to say ‘you have a nice sweater,’ but I don’t think that was any longer the case when she was in my class.” 

Rippley’s daily remarks towards Svingen did not go unnoticed by the class. Atkins drew comics in her notebook about the interactions to deal with her discomfort.

“Harassment doesn’t necessarily have to be bad if it’s enough,” Atkins said. “No one thing was absolutely terrible, but if it’s every class, you know?”

Rippley said he believes that the reason Svingen filed the complaint was because she was upset by her grade in the class, but Svingen claims she consistently received good grades in German.

After two semesters in Rippley’s class, Svingen filed a sexual harassment complaint with Human Resources (HR). HR representative Lora Steil, now deceased, interviewed Svingen, Rippley and a number of her classmates about the harassment. However, Atkins, who was asked to testify, remembers the investigation as cursory.

“There was no explanation of the process, no explanation of what would happen after,” Atkins said.

Svingen found the investigation intrusive and embarrassing. 

“It’s one thing to come forward and say something, but to then have that read to people who I knew and who were my friends, that was really, really tough and made me second guess if I did the right thing,” Svingen said.

Svingen was not allowed access to Rippley’s or her classmates’ testimonies. In the end, she was told that her complaint was determined to have merit and that Rippley would face disciplinary action, but the College never specified what that would be. According to Svingen and college records, she never received a formal write-up of the results. 

Rippley claims that he was equally in the dark. He said it was not made clear to him that Svingen’s was a sexual harassment complaint, that he met with HR only once during the entire process and had no access to Svingen or her classmates’ testimonies.

Rippley and the College disagree about what disciplinary actions were taken as a result of the investigation’s findings. 

“Not one thing was told to me, or recommended to me or discussed with me or anything … there was never any disciplinary action, nothing ever took place,” Rippley said.

However, Lehmann said that the investigation file contained a memo to Rippley detailing that Svingen’s sexual harassment complaint was determined to have merit. 

The only result both Rippley and the College agreed on regarded end-of-course student evaluations of his classes.

“One of the actions that was taken by the college in response to the investigation into Ms. Svingen’s concerns was to require a classroom climate question on Professor Rippley’s end-of-course evaluations,” Provost Marci Sortor wrote in an email. “This was done to try to ensure that other remedial measures taken by the college were effective.”

Sortor added the following question to the evaluation to determine if there was a pattern of harassment:

“An effective classroom environment depends on students being respected as individuals in a manner free of bias or discrimination … Does the instructor foster an environment that respects all students in the class?”

After five years of evaluations, the College found no pattern of harassment. There were no other complaints filed against Rippley after Svingen’s.

Lehmann maintains that the College took additional action to address the investigation’s findings, but did not disclose specifics.

Drawing a line

Lehmann’s December call wasn’t the first time Svingen had weighed in about recognizing Rippley for million dollar donations to St. Olaf. In November 2011, Regents Hall of Mathematical Sciences was to be renamed “Rippley Hall” in honor of a $2 million gift from Rippley and his wife, Barbara Rippley, a former St. Olaf librarian. 

Svingen approached Sortor to challenge the renaming decision, citing the absurdity of honoring a professor who had been found guilty of sexually harassing a student just months prior. 

“At the end of my conversation with [Sortor], she told me that I would be expected to keep quiet about this incident, because it was not something she wanted to have released to the greater St. Olaf community,” Svingen said. After the meeting the renaming was abruptly cancelled with no public explanation.

Sortor does not recall asking Svingen to keep quiet, but did say that she would not publicly announce why the building would not be renamed.

Regents Hall of Mathematical Sciences never became Rippley Hall, but the College kept the $2 million, which was allocated for international and off-campus studies.

Rippley said he would still be willing to donate to St. Olaf in the future, even without public recognition. He also claimed that public acknowledgement was not a condition of the $1 million gift. Lehmann said otherwise. 

“That was the only thing holding this up, and if he’s saying that wasn’t a condition, then there was apparently a misunderstanding that we’d love to try to clear up,” Lehmann said. 

In March 2017, Rippley was in talks with the College to donate his and his wife’s $600,000 life insurance policy. However, he recently said that the College is “uncomfortable” accepting the gift due to Svingen’s previous objections. Vice President for Advancement Enoch Blazis did not address why, but said the College has “not had continued conversations” related to that gift.

Lehmann explained that the College has drawn a hard line on accepting donations from Rippley with public acknowledgement. However, they’re comfortable accepting anonymous donations from the Rippley family. 

“If we say that we’re only going to accept gifts from perfect people, then we would close shop,” Lehmann said.

Svingen said she still loves St. Olaf – she’s made a donation every year since her graduation – but remains unsettled by her experience reporting sexual harassment. 

“Years later, I am reflecting on things that St. Olaf never said; St. Olaf administrators never said the college supported me and respected me for standing up for what I believed was right; St. Olaf staff never said the college would go above and beyond to protect me and make me feel safe; and most importantly, St. Olaf leaders never said that I would not have to face the complexity of this situation alone.”

 

By Cassidy Neuner and Emma Whitford

neuner1@stolaf.edu

whitfo1@stolaf.edu

This report is part of a series detailing sexual misconduct and harassment by professors at St. Olaf College. To send information or tips to the news team please email manitoumesstips@gmail.com. Avery Ellfeldt (ellfel1@stolaf.edu) contributed reporting.