Following days of demonstrations against hate speech at a liberal arts college in Minnesota, the school has reached an agreement with student protesters.
St. Olaf College President David Anderson sent an email to students late Monday stating that the administration had agreed with the student-led group “Collective For Change on The Hill,” which interrupted a college forum earlier in the day to present administrators with their demands.
“This the first step in a process towards a long-term solution, and all of us on campus are committed to moving forward in a spirit of collaboration to address these important issues,” he said.
The students had been protesting racism at the school in Northfield, Minn., since the weekend, when a black student reported having found a note on the windshield of her car that read: “I am so glad that you are leaving soon. One less n‑‑‑‑‑ that this school has to deal with. You have spoken up too much. You will change nothing. Shut up or I will shut you up.” Students gathered Saturday night inside a student union building, sharing their own on-campus experiences with racism and chanting: “This ends now.”
The protests continued through Monday, when students were expected to boycott. Then the school administration canceled classes “so that we may have time for faculty, students, and staff to continue the discussions about racism and diversity on our campus,” St. Olaf spokeswoman Kari VanDerVeen said at the time.
The racist note was the latest incident in a series of similar expressions against students.
“It’s been something that’s been going on all year,” Samantha Wells, a senior who said she found the racist note, told fellow students during the weekend demonstrations, according to the Northfield News. “We’ve done so much digging and this stuff has happened for decades. There’s one thing that happens and it stops and then it happens again and then it kind of stops. I think the big message is we shouldn’t let this happen again. The administration needs to do something that stops it indefinitely.”
“We are protesting to help change the institutional structure that perpetuates racism here at St. Olaf,” she told The Washington Post in an email Monday afternoon.
Wells and her fellow protesters presented the college president with an agreement, which includes assembling an autonomous task force to research the topics raised by the students’ demands. Those demands include administrative changes, such as racial and cultural sensitivity training; a curriculum that encourages a racial awareness and inclusion; and a policy on racial threats and hate crimes.
“We are committed to our cause and will not rest until substantial changes are discussed with the administration,” Wells said. “We want it in writing that we will be heard and that our concerns are serious.”
Nearly 3,000 full-time students were enrolled in St. Olaf College in fall 2016; 2,214 of the students were white and 63 were black, according to enrollment figures.
During the current school year, there have been nine reported acts of hate speech on campus — three incidents during the first semester and six during the second semester — according to the college.
School officials called it “deeply troubling” that some racist messages were being sent directly to specific students and said the administration is working to find those responsible for the “hate-filled acts.”
“The racist message a student received this weekend follows several other racist acts on campus throughout the year, including written racial epithets and a message targeted at another student,” VanDerVeen, the school spokeswoman, said in a statement. “In addition to the sharp rise in incidents, it is also deeply troubling that the perpetrators have begun directing messages to specific members of our community.
“These acts are despicable. They violate every value we hold as a community, and they have absolutely no place at St. Olaf.”
In an April 21 email to students, Anderson, the college president, compared the recent incidents to a form of terrorism.
“I am as angry and frustrated as you are at the repeated violations of our values and community norms by someone who defaces the campus with scrawled racial epithets,” Anderson wrote. “I would love nothing more than to discover who is responsible for these acts and to remove that person from our community.”
I say “that person” because I am pretty sure that this is the work of one or a small number of people. (It may not even be an Ole). This person uses the same modus operandi every time this happens; even the handwriting on the notes is similar from incident to incident. This person has adopted a strategy similar to the one terrorists use: under the cover of darkness and anonymity engage in acts that frighten, dishearten, and frustrate people with a goal of unsettling the community and turning people against one another.
When this person first struck in the fall, I swiftly informed the community and unequivocally denounced the person and this person’s acts. I implored anyone in the community with information about the perpetrator to come forward, and I reinforced the values of this place. I have deliberately not repeated my announcement every time this person scrawls another racial epithet somewhere because then this person wins. I don’t want to give this person the power to evoke at will a message to the campus from the President.
Nevertheless, whenever this person acts, we announce it, we denounce it, and we assert the strength of the community over against these terrible actions. We cannot let this person win.
This is a painful and challenging matter for our community. We have an open campus, and while that is generally a very good thing it does provide opportunities for a vile coward like this person to keep on committing these acts. We can’t post a guard at every wall on campus, or blanket the campus with cameras, or invoke a curfew after dark. Instead, this ends when someone on campus — student, faculty or staff — tells us who this person is or helps us with information that enables us to identify this person.
This person’s actions don’t define us. We won’t let this person win.
The Northfield News reported that a student discovered a similar note on his car earlier last week.
Then, the outlet reported, another student found a note in her backpack that read, “Go back to Africa.”
Students are now calling on St. Olaf administration to put an end to it.
Officials at the college said they appreciate those who are “advocating for meaningful action” and are listening to their concerns.
“The students in Buntrock Commons last night shared their fear, anger, and frustration,” VanDerVeen, the spokeswoman for St. Olaf, said in the statement. “These recent acts of racism have opened painful — and important — discussions about how we can do better as a community in addressing the broader issue of racial discrimination.”
This story, which was originally published May 1, has been updated.