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St. Olaf is renowned for its music program, and Paula Swanson ’68 serves as an example of the talent the department attracts. She played flute in the St. Olaf Band, majored in piano performance and briefly sang in the St. Olaf Choir.
Throughout her time in the program, band director Miles Johnson, now deceased, allegedly groomed, sexually exploited and assaulted Swanson. Her life was irreversibly affected.
“To this day, my husband calls me ‘the startled woman’ … I put that to the years of fearfulness that [Johnson] would walk in abruptly while I was concentrating on certain passages of my practice,” she said.
Johnson left letters in Swanson’s P.O. box calling her his “golden girl” and summoning her to his office. Occasionally, he would drive her out to the country where he would kiss and fondle her.
“When I was with him, I was a statue,” Swanson said. “He did all the talking, mostly, and his physical aggression toward me was met by stony, cold silence … I went somewhere else mentally, like a zombie.”
Once, during her senior year, Johnson entered a practice room where she was rehearsing, turned off the lights, pushed her against a wall and kissed her. He fled when Swanson screamed.
Swanson is not alone in her experience. The Manitou Messenger found that several former professors allegedly sexually abused students. In one case, the college administration at the time allowed the alleged perpetrator to continue teaching even after receiving a complaint.
Last March, St. Olaf renamed the building formerly known as the Dittmann Center, the Center for Art and Dance. This was announced after multiple alumni accused former art and Norwegian professor Reidar Dittmann ’47, now deceased, of sexual assault and misconduct.
One of those students, Karen, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, spoke to the Manitou Messenger about enduring Dittmann’s abuse while attending St. Olaf in the 1980s. The two met during Karen’s senior year while she was studying abroad on a month-long art history interim program led by Dittmann.
“The abuse began during that interim,” Karen said. “His attention started somewhere at least halfway through the trip … He started with the typical grooming process. [He asked] me to go with him on his daily prep walks, sometimes just me and sometimes with other students.”
He also asked her to dinner and afternoon coffee.
“On one such occasion after [a group] dinner, and after I had consumed enough wine to be intoxicated, Reidar Dittmann brought me up to his room where [he] then raped me,” Karen said.
When she returned to campus in the spring, Karen said Dittmann would place notes in her P.O. box, asking her to meet him in his office in Steensland Hall where they would sometimes have sex.
“When I did not show up he … made me feel like I had somehow failed,” Karen said. “I had been brought up to do what my teachers told me and to respect authority figures. This was the culture, you have to understand this.”
Communication between the two continued through Karen’s final semester and into the months following her graduation. Dittmann contacted her until she repeatedly asked him to stop. Like Swanson, the experience has stayed with her ever since.
Bruce Jensen ’77 approached the Manitou Messenger about former St. Olaf physics professor Harry Keller, who passed away in 2000. In 1975, Jensen was enrolled in Keller’s environmental studies interim class. After Jensen expressed interest in further discussion about the course, Keller invited Jensen to his office, where they talked about their personal lives and Keller kissed Jensen.
“There was nothing as far as physical abuse that happened, but there was all kinds of mental turmoil,” Jensen said. “And so the dynamics of the sexual abuse mentally were very much at play with me. I was very conflicted, because … I respected his intellect very much, I loved his class, I thought he taught it well.”
Jensen visited Keller’s office two more times over that interim. During the last visit, Keller asked Jensen to fondle his penis. When Jensen refused, the two had a physical struggle until Keller gave up and Jensen left the office.
“I had no idea what to think or do. I couldn’t make it all fit in my head to make any kind of sense,” Jensen said.
Reporting was ineffective
In February 1975, Jensen approached the St. Olaf administration and Northfield Police Department about Keller. He later met with members of the administration and recounted his experience in detail. Jensen said he did not receive any follow-up from either the administration or police, and that Keller continued to work at the College.
“About two-thirds of the way through second semester I’m walking through the student center … and coming down the way was Harry Keller with another male student, walking side by side. And I knew what was behind that, and I just felt that I had lost,” Jensen said.
St. Olaf does not have any record of Jensen’s report or of any resulting action by the College.
“[Jensen’s] complaint involves an allegation of sexual assault, so there’s no grey area there,” St. Olaf General Counsel Carl Lehmann ’91 said. “That would have violated college policy in addition to criminal law. What little I know about that instance was that, as is frequently the case with sexual predators, multiple individuals came forward after [Jensen] told of his experience.”
Keller continued to work at St. Olaf until December 1981. Shortly before his departure, two students filed complaints against Keller, and the College acted to end his employment. He left just months before a civil lawsuit was filed against him and St. Olaf by Northfield resident Anthony Williams, who also accused Keller of sexual abuse. According to a Manitou Messenger article from 1982, Jensen was called to give a deposition and Keller “did not deny the charges made by Jensen and agreed to the student’s factual version of the incident.”
Today, any romantic or sexual relationship between a professor and a student – consensual or otherwise – would be forbidden by the College’s consensual relations policy, which prohibits “Consensual Relationships between a faculty or staff member and any student enrolled at the College.” If a faculty or staff member is found in violation of this policy, they are “subject to discipline up to and including dismissal.”
No such policy existed while any of the survivors were enrolled at St. Olaf; sexual exploitation was wrapped into a clause in the faculty manual that stated, “[a professor] avoids any exploitation of students for his private advantage and acknowledges significant assistance from them.”
Neither Swanson nor Karen reported the abuse during their time at St. Olaf.
Confronting the past
According to Lehmann, St. Olaf was unaware of any allegations against Dittmann or Johnson until survivors approached the College in the spring of 2016. Since then, St. Olaf has made several attempts to acknowledge the effects of the abuse and misconduct on survivors. The name of the arts building was changed, and the Miles Johnson Endowment was renamed the St. Olaf Band Endowment.
Current St. Olaf Band conductor Timothy Mahr ’78 said that the allegations against Johnson have spurred some changes in the music department. A book about the history of the St. Olaf Band is in the works, and it will now include an epilogue addressing these allegations and related issues. The College is also questioning the display of Johnson’s portrait in Christiansen Hall of Music.
“We are frustrated and disappointed and concerned, so I’m hopeful that maybe this epilogue might provide a way for us to learn from the experience and grow from it,” Mahr said.
Lehmann said that the College has responded to the allegations in a number of additional ways, but has not publicly shared those changes “because of [the] expressed wishes of victims involved.”
Lehmann stressed the College’s desire to assist any survivors of assault or misconduct – past or present.
In regards to the College’s ongoing investigation of sexual abuse, Lehmann said, “I don’t think it will ever be wrapped up. We continue to hear of allegations, sometimes involving the same professors that we had heard about or are aware of already, and other times people come forward with new allegations involving new faculty.”
For Swanson, healing remains an ongoing process.
“I believe that Miles Johnson’s actions and words helped to create a different Paula than I was in 1964, as a freshman,” Swanson said. “In the past, I’ve worked with therapists and psychiatrists ever since to find the old, true Paula.”
This report is part of a series detailing sexual misconduct by professors at St. Olaf College. To send information or tips to the news team please email email@example.com. Conlan Campbell (firstname.lastname@example.org), Anders Mattson (email@example.com) and Becca Carcaterra (firstname.lastname@example.org) contributed reporting.
Tuesday morning. I am become R137. Linoleum floors, decked out symmetrical blue and white tiles. Fifty people sit in mismatched lawn chairs. Listen: a patronizingly robotic female voice proclaims the truth of the room, one flimsy paper slip after another. Her voice: the symptoms of Western sexism. Look here. Remember your documents. Here: a squeaky gray box to test your vision. Thick periscope to nowhere. Put your forehead here. Look in deep and read the numbers. Look in deep and discover there your most patriotic self. That self that sits dull-eyed, waiting for recognition, reduction to a card. Take a number. R137. Put your forehead here. Your forehead meets the residue of forehead R136. The creepy, plasticky button presses against your displeased brow. Read the numbers. County. State. Nation. R137.
He felt like a small bag of Gushers,
partly opened, stepped on,
goo flowing from the sides
Some got stuck on your sole
You turned the knob
Although the door felt your knock,
it looked through you
and remained closed
when you ran down the steps,
rain pouring from your eyes
I promise you
that door still remembers
His body is folding
unto itself like an origami piece
because he is nervous
with hands under his thighs
He is fragile paper you opened,
but he turned out to be blank
When you get past
thinking that perhaps
there’s a chance
to write on him
something of your own,
the realization will come
that it was not writer’s block
but his own weightless words
wandering off the page
that kept him lost and empty
You’re scared he will
keep opening your heart,
ripping and mending it,