Professor's name stripped from St. Olaf building

An art building at St. Olaf College is being renamed, because of what the school calls credible evidence that the professor it was named after engaged in sexual misconduct.

In an email sent to the school and alumni Thursday, President David Anderson wrote that the college will remove Reidar Dittmann's name from Dittmann Center.

Anderson wrote, "Out of respect for the victims and the Dittmann family, many of whom are members of the St. Olaf community, we will not share details beyond acknowledging we received credible evidence that Professor Dittmann engaged in sexual misconduct during his time at St. Olaf."

The center was named after Dittmann, an art history professor, in 2002. Dittmann taught at the school from 1947 to 1993. He died in 2010.

"This is not a particularly happy day for the college," Anderson said in an interview. "I knew Reidar Dittmann. And his family is deeply woven into the fabric of St. Olaf. I want to be the first one to acknowledge that he made extraordinary contributions to St. Olaf during his time on the faculty."

He pointed to Dittman's work launching St. Olaf's study abroad program and his 46 year teaching career. Born in Norway, he'd also been part of the Norwegian resistance against the Nazis during World War II. He helped sabotage a shipyard being used by the Nazis and was later taken prisoner and sent to Buchenwald, a German concentration camp, where he was in captivity for 30 months.

"But the thing that has really become impressed upon us most in the past year is that two things that just don't make sense together can both be true at the same time," said Anderson. "And that's what we have here, is someone who made great contributions to the life of the college and engaged in conduct that resulted in the action we took (Thursday)."

The Dittmann family released a statement Thursday, responding to the action of the college.

"As the family of Professor Reidar Dittmann, we are shocked and dismayed by the turn of events that has resulted in stripping his name from the Art and Dance Center at St. Olaf College. The allegations of sexual misconduct from decades ago deeply trouble his family, many members of whom proudly attended the college and grew up with it as an integral part of our lives. We abhor sexual misconduct without exception, but we are also devastated by the impossibility of due process for the person we knew and loved.

There are many other aspects of this case that should be disturbing to anyone who cares about civil liberties: the recklessness on the part of the college in allowing its alumni database to be used to distribute anonymous allegations and to solicit more allegations from a targeted group of alumna; the college's secrecy about the allegations and the process used to indict our father posthumously; the haste with which the college reached its conclusion; and finally, the public humiliation our family is experiencing as a result of the college's communications of their actions.

While we understand that the college needs to find a path forward, we are deeply saddened at this outcome which provides no closure for us."

The investigation involving Dittmann was conducted by the school's chief legal counsel, Carl Crosby Lehmann.

"I think it was a very fair process and we have a high degree of confidence in the decision that we made," said Lehmann.

"When we receive allegations like this we don't take them at face value," said Lehmann. "We talk to witnesses. We do what we can to verify the details and we assess the credibility of the witnesses that we're speaking with. And even after many years it's possible to uncover facts and make decisions like this."

Anderson said as the school addressed its sexual conduct policy over the last two years, some alumni came forward to report sexual misconduct, including the allegations against Dittmann.

Anderson apologized for what happened to any alumni who experienced sexual misconduct. He said the school has received other reports from alumni through a confidential reporting system — which is still open — and is investigating on a case-by-case basis.

St. Olaf's art building has been renamed the Center for Art and Dance, and signs outside the building have been changed. The school plans to scrub the Dittmann Center name from the website and campus maps over spring break next week.

On March 27 the school is planning a "service of lament and hope" speaking generally to the school's awareness of past issues of sexual misconduct by faculty and staff that students have experienced.

"This isn't something that you hide," Anderson said. "The general problem of faculty and staff sexual misconduct, you can't hide it. You know the people who have experienced it. You have heard them express their pain. You are aware of the impact it has had on their lives. You don't just put that under the rug. You have to lift it up and own it and address it."