With classes canceled, St. Olaf addresses race concerns

Hundreds of student pack an administration building
Hundreds of students pack an administration building for a protest at St. Olaf College on Monday. Students are boycotting classes to protest recent racist incidents at the school.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

Updated: 6:05 p.m. | Posted: 9:26 a.m.

Classes were canceled at St. Olaf College in Northfield on Monday because of a boycott by students who were protesting in the wake of alleged racist incidents on campus.

Tensions were high as students moved to occupy an atrium inside the college's administrative building.

Just before 8 a.m., student leaders quieted a large crowd and speakers began to share their experiences. A student named Don Williams said he arrived home after a walk last week to find a note on his car with the N-word on it. Another student, Samantha Wells, couldn't hold back her tears as she described a similar incident.

"I can't turn a corner without feeling like somebody is going to be there, waiting for me," she said. "It's just so hard, and scary. But I'm so thankful for all those who've supported me in the last few days ... ."

Shortly after, student leaders announced they had created a group called the Collective for Change on the Hill, and had a list of demands for the president and the board of regents.

Students interrupt a staff meeting at St. Olaf
Students interrupt a staff meeting with the president of St. Olaf.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

"Most of these demands that we are stating are not ideological, they have proven to be able to work," said Junior Avalos, one of the organizers. "We spent multiple straight hours, working on these sets of demands."

Among them are racial and cultural sensitivity training for faculty and staff; the hiring of new staff to facilitate dialogue about campus race relations, and a review of the college's policy on hate crimes and racial threats.

Abdul Wake is another student leader.

"This is not about political ideology," he said. "It's about a recognition of our humanity, as equals, to see us as humans."

When the president of the college, David Anderson, was confronted with the list of demands and pressed to sign it, he responded:

"What I would like to do is sit down with some number of the drafting team that produced these terms of engagement, and collaboratively produce some agreement for going forward, that we're all comfortable with ... I'm not going to do it in a room full of people."

Anderson met with some of the student leaders in the afternoon, and was not available for more comment. But the vice president for student life, Greg Kneser, held an open meeting with students.

"All I'm asking you is for a little bit of grace, to believe that this kind of stuff does bother us deeply," he said. "It does hurt us deeply. We are allies. We are struggling like hell to be the best allies that we can."

He also spoke of his neighbor, Don Williams, the student who had the offensive note left on his car.

"I'm mad about the fact that Don gets something on his car, because he's a student, with a vile word on his car. I'm also mad because he's my neighbor, and nobody does that ... in my neighborhood," he said.

As the day continued, more students of color took to the podium to express their frustration with the college administration, urging the president to sign the letter of demands. Krysta Wetzel told the crowd that she hadn't slept last week or this past weekend.

"And I know that even if this gets signed, it won't affect me while I'm here," she said. "But I know that I want to leave this institution better for people who look like me than when I was here."

In a statement, the college said it is investigating the alleged incidents of racism going back as far as October.

"These acts are despicable," said the statement. "They violate every value we hold as a community, and they have absolutely no place at St. Olaf. We are sparing no effort and are using every tool at our disposal to catch the perpetrators of these hate-filled acts. We are supporting [the students'] efforts and, most importantly, listening to their insight and concerns."

Late Monday, St Olaf released another statement saying the President's Leadership Team "will publicly acknowledge the receipt of this list of demands and acceptance of the terms and conditions as soon as possible ... and set up an autonomous Task Force ... to research the topics raised in this list of demands."

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