My Open Mayday Letter to Oles and Allies: On Where the Silences Are

 

The following letter is written by Professor Joan Hepburn. The letter follows our in print submission policy, that being “The views expressed in all letters, editorials and articles do not necessarily represent the views of the St. Olaf student body, faculty, administration or Messenger staff members.”

This letter refers to an appendix and questions, provided by Joan Hepburn:

Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C

Working Group Queries and Comments

 

Greetings All,

We are at a climactic point in the academic year. Classes will end shortly, final examinations will begin, and afterwards commencement. We have reached a turning point with respect to issues of campus climate, too, as the Working Group just issued its long awaited report in response to the student protest last spring. It has been a year since the protest and seven months since President Anderson selected members of the Working Group. The St. Olaf community has been a long time coming to a detailed response to the protest from the President, the President’s Leadership Team, the Board, the Working Group, and outside consultants. Many resources have been brought to bear on the problem of institutionalized racism and other challenges at St. Olaf College, including grant funds and outside experts. Out of respect for all stakeholders, I want to make an immediate response to the Working Group’s Report, which begs the question, “What now?”

The Working Group Report released May 1 rightly acknowledges the debt we as a community owe to the bright and brave young students who initiated the protest last spring, causing us to take a good hard look at ourselves. The Collective recently released a detailed Timeline, one documenting campus events from 10/05/16 to the present, and including correspondence, meetings, town halls, listening and other sessions. It might help to read both documents as you consider three questions: (1) what new light does the Working Group Report shed on the findings of the Collective on the Hill and the Task Force on Institutional Racism; (2) what am I not seeing in this newest report, and (3) what else might be true? I want to explore where the silences are.

My own review of the Working Group’s Report begins with their overview of previously reported events, including their glossary of terms, statements of principal and need but also their recommendations. The Working Group looked back on the paper entitled “Racism and Change on the Hill, 1874-2017, released May 5, 2017. In it the Collective provided a history of institutional racism at St Olaf College, documenting and contextualizing evidence of it in everything from curriculum to culture to campus climate. Members of the Collective also issued a comprehensive list of demands for change. The Task Force on Institutional Racism, elected May 22nd, was subsequently charged with reviewing both the student demands and the responses of the President’s Leadership Team so as to issue a report with recommendation September 1, 2017. The President responded to the Task Force’s report on September 6 by announcing his plan to form the Working Group. September 25 President Anderson introduced the campus to the eleven members that he and the Leadership Team selected. Soon afterwards, in a Faculty Meeting, those present learned that interested parties could opt into online updates of the new group’s progress, but later administrators agreed to make this information available campus wide.

In Appendix B of the Working Group, one can find an abbreviated Timeline of events leading up to and away from the group’s formation.. The Timeline indicates that on December 6, 2017 President Anderson received a $250,000 grant to support the charge of the Working Group. The size of the group, the length of time the members had to work, and the financial resources for consultant fees and other outside resources—all speak to the college’s commitment to addressing problems with campus climate, not limited to concerns about race. On page fourteen of the sixty-page document is a list of meetings and large group forums for the St. Olaf Community to listen to each other. Much of the report explains the results of these conversations and an array of surveys. This data echoes general and specific claims that members of the Collective and the Task Force made last spring; namely, that we have much work to do to improve the quality of life for all at St. Olaf. Now we have a base of narrative knowledge, investigative data, and consultant expertise on which to act, all good things. Most important, the Working Group and President’s Leadership Team acknowledged the prevalence of institutional racism among inadequacies and inequities of other kinds. They acknowledged the necessity of removing barriers to inclusion of underrepresented groups. They also acknowledged the pain of exclusion, and a need for all to participate in a healing process that takes time and hard work. The college cannot move forward without these acknowledgements and other evidence of administrative commitment. The question is where we go from here?

The chief recommendation in the Working Group Report is that the college forms a permanent body, the St. Olaf Council of Equity and Inclusion, which with other stakeholders will continue deliberations. To Include is to Excel, is also a new initiative. On the surface, then, investments of talk, time, and available funds sound good and hopeful, but a year after the protest, the language of the report seems longer on promise than practice. I am concerned that the proposal to extend our studies shows no sense of of urgency and further postpones action.

The long silence with which we began this academic year after the spring protest and the Task Force’s work last summer may have set the tone for indefinite contemplation. The college did not facilitate much needed dialogues. Not until November 6, 2017 did the Working Group begin the listening sessions to which members of the Collective and the Task Force came, having been invited the week before. In the Art Barn on February 23, 2018 and March 19th the Collective, Task Force, President, and Working

Group met with Reverend Dr. Jamie Washington so as to begin opening a line of communication. These were emotionally charged sessions, but the heavily pregnant silence before any conversations, the permanent plan for more protracted deliberations, the short notices between listening events, and the tepid responses to many of them across campus—all of these things helped rob the movement of momentum and diminished a sense of urgency about our troubled campus climate, perhaps adding the problems of avoidance and suppression to the building up of old pressures Furthermore, the first attempts to do something raised questions about how meaningful some activities have been, and whether St Olaf was taking seriously the call to change. A whole year later, people are asking, “When will we actually initiate meaningful action?”

The Working Group’s charge might explain, at least in part, the slow start to the change that many in the St. Olaf community seek. According to the report, the group aimed to conduct a comprehensive review, include many voices, and identify barriers for underrepresented groups. The Working Group’s rational approach emphasized study, relied on student research, especially in the form of surveys, outside consultants, online training and listening sessions but also learning circles. The report confirms what we knew without suggesting what we can do, except to institutionalize the sharing of stories and ideas. We need to confront our problems with social inequities and injustice. The steps already taken are largely passive and too few. They include diversity training for students and an online vehicle for submitting bias incidents reports. While these brief activities are good first steps, the online diversity session failed on many levels. In addition, only twelve out of three thousand students attended the four to six training sessions scheduled in the dorms during October. Perhaps a one-day notice accounts for such poor attendance, but these incidents set the bar for future events extremely low. They even suggest checklist fixes to conditions leading to the protest.

Controversy attended the surveys sent out to the community, as well. Sometimes it arose because the survey questions seemed to avoid the difficult language of race, or student authors were asked not to include allusions to racism in the questions they raised about learning at the college. Below I attach my response to one survey and to other attempts to omit or deny the issue of racism.

While there were many listening sessions led by administrators too, at times I questioned whether students, faculty, and staff in attendance were being heard. For example, when on February 28, 2018 I received Dean Eaton’s email about the St. Olaf’s Protest Policy; I sent a six-page letter, first to the Working Group, raising questions about the Marketing Department’s role as recorder and reporter for them. I also asked about investigations into the perpetrators of hate speech and hate crimes. Finally, I wanted to know whether protestors were being targeted for punishment because of their activities last spring. Specifically, I wanted to know if anyone had been questioned multiple times, fired from work study or denied internships, ordered out of the dorms or evicted from campus, prevented from registering for courses or not permitted to graduate, or issued one or more code violations, even suspended or expelled. Given easy access to Deans of Students and the Working Group’s resources, I thought my questions would prove easy to answer, but no one in the Working Group answered my letter. Page three in their report directs me to send all responses to President Anderson, but my experience with correspondence and in listening sessions leaves me less trusting of a good outcome.

When on March 5th, for example, Dean Eaton announced a March 6th listening session on the newly publicized Protest Policy, I went. Held in the Pause’s Main Stage, attended by college counsel, VP’s, deans, administrators in Admissions, Residence Life, Marketing, a small audience of students, and others, we learned that we had 90 seconds each to ask them questions. When I stood first to ask mine, Dean Eaton interrupted me to say that since I posed them to the Working Group, I should look to them for answers. Despite the subject of this meeting and the abruptness with which others and I were silenced, I wrote Dean Eaton a letter containing my queries. I sent it March 10, and I include it below.

At least Dean Eaton answered me April 4, directing me to read Articles 6 and 7 of the St. Olaf Code of Conduct. On March 22 though, I arrived at the Art Barn to attend another of her meetings on the Protest Policy, but learned the meeting was closed when Dean Eaton said before everyone assembled that if I did not leave, she would adjourn the meeting. Considerate of other people’s time, I left, but the incident occurred in front of students, staff, and faculty, and again it felt disrespectful. Interestingly, no one commented on the Dean’s tone in the moment or called me about it afterwards, as people seem afraid of the consequences so remain silent. Thick-skinned, I am more concerned about the students who may be still suffering harsh punishments for speaking truth to power, even in the listening sessions. Clearly, the band of disrespect does not stretch both ways.

I worry that code violations are being issued secretly, the punishments are unnecessarily harsh, and that one who protests can too easily be accused of threatening those who think differently. Especially blacks have suffered a long history of threats or death for how they look or what they say, such lethal charges carrying special force for them. Accusations rarely have had to be proven, a frightening fact which people should consider when they call for survivors to be patient. If any code violations are being issued to protestors alone, I worry that things are getting worse rather than better for the underrepresented, this despite appearances and plans for institutional change. If much is done in secret, things are getting much worse for the students who have worked so hard and honestly for the climate we claim to want changed. What will we do to help targeted students? What is the Working Group’s responsibility to them? What data have you collected about them?

My point is that the Working Group never answered me, and their report devotes no space to my questions about the punishing measures it seems that the college has taken against protestors rather than perpetrators of hate speech and hate crimes. Key administrators have shown me that they do not want to hear from me or from others who want social justice. The college community either does not know what is happening behind the scenes, is afraid to speak, or is suffering from survey and on-line training fatigue. Meanwhile, targeted protestors still here are suffering in silence while facing far too many obstacles to completing their studies, all while fighting depression. Fearful of punitive responses to their complaints, struggling with on-going hate speech and hateful incidents, some intimidated students have felt too afraid to submit bias reports. Meanwhile hate incidents on campus continue to occur. Again, see the Collective’s recently released timeline.

This is not an easy letter to write when so many are committed to working for change in the campus climate at St. Olaf College. Some might dislike my reading of where things are at St. Olaf. They would rather I did not report on the silences or some of the empty activities that we still perform, especially when there are so many actions we might take to help struggling students now. At the very least, they might prefer I not point to gaps as I comment on the Working Group Report. I know that members of the Working Group worked hard, so I do not want to sound negative about their report. I simply need to see more grit or teeth or some sign of urgency in the next steps that we as a community take. I wanted to see that in the report. In addition, if no one was or is caught up in a maelstrom of meanness, good, but if conditions have grown worse for underrepresented students and allies who woke us up last spring, why ignore or deny this? Why not investigate the claim and do something about it? Why not act now so that those targeted can complete their degrees and get on with their lives? What is more important? After we have gathered data, raised questions, stated our Christian mission, actually listened to people on the margins of our community, and accurately diagnosed our problems—after all of our studies and reports, surely it must be time to act. The tactic of merely extending discussions seems increasingly odd. This is no time to be either passive or silent. Rather, I’m sorely tempted to cry, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!”

 

Joan Hepburn, English Department (5/7/18)

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