Over a thousand students, staff, faculty and alumni filled Tomson Hall on Monday, May 1 to protest acts of racist hate speech on campus and demand institutional change at St. Olaf College. After eight known incidents of hate speech – seven reported to Public Safety – during the 2016-17 academic year, subsequent emails from administration and little visible action to combat racism both overt and institutional, A Collective for Change on the Hill presented the St. Olaf administration with a list of demands and “terms and conditions for negotiation” about those demands in order to create a safer and more inclusive campus for all students of color.
Public Safety Director Fred Behr emailed students, faculty and staff an update about the College’s investigation into the hate speech incidents.
“We are using all the resources at our disposal to find the individuals responsible. This includes reviewing security camera footage, examining records from computers and printers in public spaces, and comparing handwriting samples,” Behr said. “We have potential leads based on this evidence that we are actively pursuing.”
After over 8 hours of discussion between students, the Collective and the administration on May 1, President David Anderson ’74 signed the terms, affirming his support to work towards a more inclusive campus. Anderson’s signature indicates a significant step forward for the Collective, however there is still a lot of work to be done before the demands outlined by the Collective will be met.
“Everybody wants a win at the end of this day. This is what a win looks like to me,” Anderson said. “The document that was prepared by the Drafting Committee already had reasonable things in it. The [President’s] Leadership Team took a crack at some suggestions that we thought might strengthen it … I’m pretty eager to sign it and send it around.”
The President’s Leadership Team is an advisory committee to Anderson, made up of “individuals with considerable responsibilities across the college,” according to Director of Athletic Ryan Bowles.
The Tomson sit-in ended after Anderson signed the terms and conditions. The Collective held a meeting for students, faculty and staff of color on campus to share their comments and concerns about the Collective’s next steps. Unlike the protests, this meeting was not live streamed in order to establish a safe space to voice opinions, experiences and ideas.
Shortly after the agreed to the terms, Anderson sent an email to St. Olaf parents and alumni noting that he had received and agreed to the document, which in turn fulfilled one of the terms. Anderson reiterated the fact that signing this agreement was just “the first step in a process towards a long-term solution.”
Anderson has already shared the document with St. Olaf’s Board of Regents, satisfying another term. The document also requires that “the administration should try to organize [the meeting between A Collective and the Board of Regents] so that it is public. The Board of Regents should be approached by the President’s leadership team to consider the above … This meeting will be open to the public, and streamed online by the Broadcasting Media Services if the consent of the Board is granted.”
The Board of Regents oversees the business and affairs of the college. They hold many responsibilities, including appointing the president, awarding tenure to faculty and making changes to the faculty manual. In the hierarchy of St. Olaf College, the Board of Regents sits at the top. The Board will be on campus Thursday, May 4 and A Collective is currently collecting questions for the Board members via a Google document.
Other aspects of the terms and conditions of negotiation include the administration's responsibility to draft a response to each demand within 20 days and their joint responsibility with the Drafting Committee to create a Task Force that will act to address each demand. Similar to the Title IX Task Force that was formed last spring to address sexual assault and misconduct on campus, this Task Force will meet over the summer to research each demand and the administration’s response to it.
The Tomson Hall sit-in attracted national media attention, including reporters from the Associated Press, the Washington Post and the Star Tribune. Social media also played a large role in the success of the movement. Students livestreamed almost all of the events and alumni and parents were able to connect with students on campus through Facebook, Twitter and email.
During a break in the Tomson discussions, Jack Bachmann ’17 called out another student – Ben Braman ’17, for accepting an interview about the sit-in from a local news station and claimed that he heard Braman casually use racial slurs. Bachmann demanded that Braman stop his interview.
“It isn’t that hard to direct the press to a Committee member,” Bachmann said. “Whitesplaining is a serious part of what got us here in the first place.”
“I agree with Jack that I should not have been the one being interviewed,” Braman said. “It was not my intention to steal the platform from those who actually needed it. While I disagree with Jack’s characterization of me, I understand why he reacted the way he did … I stand in solidarity with The Collective as well as everyone affected by institutional racism.”
Conversations about race, allyship, hate speech and institutional racism have extended beyond the protests and into campus life. Many professors have rearranged their syllabi to include discussions about St. Olaf’s racial climate, and students are wondering how they can contribute to creating a more inclusive community.