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Council on Equity and Inclusion formed

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The Working Group on Equity and Inclusion, formed in September 2017 to identify barriers to inclusion and recommend ways to eliminate those barriers, released their report to the community on May 1, 2018. One of the report’s key proposals is the formation of a permanent St. Olaf Council on Equity and Inclusion to help implement the report’s recommendations and develop, coordinate and oversee other equity and inclusion efforts.

In an Aug. 27 email to the student body, President David Anderson ’74 and Board of Regents Chair Larry Stranghoener ’76 announced that Marci Sortor, Provost and Dean of the College, would serve as Chair of the Council. Sortor later announced on Sept. 10 that relevant organizations had begun the work of electing the Council’s members.

The Council will be composed of two members of the President’s Leadership Team, two faculty members, two staff members, two students, an alumnus/alumna and Sortor, the Chair. Of the students on the Council, one will be jointly selected by Sortor and Student Government Association (SGA) President Sarah Freyermuth ’19 and the other will be elected by the student body.

One of the Council’s main tasks will be developing and monitoring progress toward a strategic equity and inclusion plan, the second main recommendation of the report. The report recommends that the plan address all aspects of campus life and include short and long-term strategies to make St. Olaf more inclusive. The report also proposes that the plan be integrated into the College’s larger Strategic Plan, the long-term goal-setting framework approved by the Board of Regents.

Upon release of the Working Group’s report in May, many students and faculty were receptive to the idea of creating a permanent group committed to furthering equity and inclusion on campus. The SGA Resolution on the Working Group Report features an extensive list of proposals for the Council to undertake, and A Collective for Change on The Hill’s response to the Working Group’s report calls upon the Council to make “proper, policy changes for the institution where institutional and systemic racism and intersectionality are highlighted.”

However, many also criticized the recommendations as lacking detail and claimed that they did not focus enough attention on institutional policies and practices that sustain racism and inequity.

“We feel that the document as a whole provides a vague selection of recommendations that call for very little critical, urgent, institutional change, and continues in the St. Olaf tradition of painting ‘diverse students’ as different through the language used throughout the document,” the Collective wrote on their website.

“The language of the report seems longer on promise than practice,” wrote Associate Professor of English and Task Force member Joan Hepburn in a Manitou Messenger opinion piece. “I am concerned that the proposal to extend our studies shows no sense of urgency and further postpones action.”

The SGA resolution further argues that the report does not adequately scrutinize the structure and policies of the College and instead “frames racism as a cultural and interpersonal problem, often using language such as ‘deep human encounters,’ ‘vibrant community’ and ‘climate and community,’ rather than emphasizing structural and institutional racism.”

“I am concerned that the proposal to extend our studies shows no sense of urgency and further postpones action.” – Joan Hepburn

The SGA’s resolution also criticizes the report’s failure to address several demands issued by the Collective and the Task Force’s subsequent recommendations. The report fails to discuss fostering dialogue on the transparency of the Institute for Freedom and Community, hiring a Title VI coordinator, publicly acknowledging that the College is built on occupied Dakota land and studying the provenance of that land and giving international counselors stipends. The Working Group did not explain why it did not address these and other Task Force recommendations.

“Our charge was to conduct a comprehensive review of the way people from underrepresented groups experience life at St. Olaf, assess the overall climate of the college, identify barriers, and consider best practices,” Chairs Glenn Taylor ’73 and Phil Milne ’81 wrote in an email. “As a part of our work, we carefully reviewed the Collective and the Task Force’s recommendations and met with their groups multiple times.”

In her letter to the Messenger, Hepburn argues that the Working Group’s wide range of goals and responsibilities led to the lack of detail in the report’s recommendations.

“According to the report, the group aimed to conduct a comprehensive review, include many voices, and identify barriers for underrepresented groups,” Hepburn wrote. “The Working Group’s rational approach emphasized study, relied on student research. The report confirms what we knew without suggesting what we can do, except to institutionalize the sharing of stories and ideas.”

Filling in some of the details required to implement the report’s recommendations will be one of the responsibilities of the newly-formed Council. The report insists that members of the Council must be “committed to eliminate racism and enhance social justice at St. Olaf and appreciate the urgency of this work.” Members must also undergo rigorous implicit bias training.

According to an email addressed to the student body from Freyermuth and Abbie Haug ’19, SGA vice president, “those standing for election or appointment must be willing and able to attend biweekly meetings during the academic year, be available to attend ‘listening sessions’ with members of the campus community as scheduled, and participate in an opening retreat and training session on Saturday, October 13th.”

Applications for the elected student position opened on Sept. 17 and are due by Sept. 23. The election will take place Sept. 25 as part of the general SGA Fall Elections.