A fight for tolerance
A Minnesota school has made progress in diversifying its remote campus, but work still remains
For a decade, St. Cloud State University has worked to change a broad climate of intolerance that had pervaded the campus of the second-largest university in Minnesota. How much change has occurred, though, is a matter of debate.
Minority enrollment and faculty of color have increased. The provost is Indian and dean of education is Ghanaian. The number of discrimination complaints and lawsuits — once unusually high — has plummeted.
Incidents of open harassment on campus have also declined, judging from local news reports. Several initiatives to systematically address racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia have been institutionalized.
Still, this fall the campus was embroiled in protests over the firing of an Iranian administrator who had helped diversify the enrollment. One lawsuit and one complaint alleging racial discrimination, both unrelated to his dismissal, are pending.
“This is a good place,” says Earl H. Potter III, St. Cloud’s president since 2007. “We still have challenges. We have conflicts. But I think now when we have conflicts, we come together to work through them.”
The Faculty and Staff of Color Caucus led protests against the September dismissal of Mahmoud Saffari, associate vice president for enrollment management. Potter has met with caucus members and told them privacy laws do not allow him to disclose the reasons for his decision.
Tamrat Tademe, an education professor and a senior caucus member, dismisses as “cosmetic changes” the ongoing diversity initiatives.
“We have a very, very entrenched racist machine in St. Cloud State,” says Tademe, an Ethiopian immigrant on the faculty since 1989. “I’m talking about administrators and faculty who have been here for 30, 40 years. They basically have done business their way.”
Michael Davis, another education professor, also renders a harsh judgment. “There’s a lot of racism, sexism. This place has a history of being a hostile environment for people of color,” says Davis, an African American who has taught there since 1990.
Two other senior black professors differ with those blunt assessments but acknowledge lingering tensions and conflicts.
“There have definitely been changes,” says Robert C. Johnson, 66, an ethnic studies professor who came to St. Cloud in 1985 and expects to retire from there. “There have been a number of initiatives undertaken to deal with the problems here on campus. A great deal of progress has been made in the sense that a lot of these programs have been helpful to students.”
Debra Leigh, a theater professor, leads one of those initiatives, which conducts anti-racism workshops for students, faculty, staffers and members of the community.
“I think there has been some change in our campus climate,” says Leigh. “There have been a number of people who are talking about racism in much different ways than when I first came here” in 1989.
What is not in dispute is St. Cloud had a long way to go to become a welcoming place for minorities, women, homosexuals and Jews.
The push for change began after the Roy H. Saigo, Potter’s predecessor, arrived in 2000 as the school’s first president of color.
“They had a class-action lawsuit for unequal pay for women. They had about 39 grievances and complaints,” most alleging discrimination, recalls Saigo, who is Japanese-American. “Generally, most universities have difficulty with three or four.”
That was not all. Besides the internal administrative complaints of bias based on race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was investigating a discrimination claim filed by a Native American staffer who had been fired. A class action lawsuit charging anti-Semitism would soon follow.
One by one, St. Cloud settled the lawsuits. The settlements involved financial payments and program initiatives, such as diversity training for all faculty and staff. Saigo added an investigator to the affirmative action office to work through the backlog of complaints.
Then Saigo, who was interned with his family during World War II, set out to document the intolerant climate to lay the groundwork for change. He brought in one consultant and then another. Both identified serious problems with racism. But professors and administrators challenged the consultant’s research methods.
“People would say: ‘We don’t have a problem. They’re all a bunch of troublemakers They’re just unhappy. If they don’t like it, leave,’” Saigo says. “How many times did I hear that one.”
Saigo and the chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and University system asked the EEOC to investigate the campus climate. It was the first time the EEOC had been invited to investigate a university.
The agency’s 2002 report found St. Cloud to be “a difficult environment for anyone with a perspective outside of mainstream White, Christian thinking.”
That official report broke down resistance.
“It was a good point to start and finally get some traction,” Saigo says. “I decided we really needed to pull together a concerted effort. What we did is basically take a holistic approach.”
St. Cloud had already begun requiring incoming students to attend a half-day seminar on respecting other individuals and their rights, and the penalties for violating them. A “Racial Issues Requirement” was added. Students must take a course covering the history and structural nature of racism in the country.
Campus unions representing agreed to mediation as the first step in resolving disputes, reducing the number of grievances, complaints and lawsuits, Saigo says.
In 2004, the anti-racism initiative began offering workshops and so far has held more than 100.
“I know that it makes a difference,” Leigh says. “People start to understand the issue is bigger than individual racial prejudices.”
Tademe complains that the initiative is educational, rather than activist.
“To the extent that they talk about racism, that’s fine and good,” he says. “They’re giving workshops after workshops after workshops, with no intention of turning that workshop into a practical campaign to stop actual racism.”
Several administrators and professors say St. Cloud has had such serious problems with intolerance because of the surrounding area, which is predominately white and racially-isolated.
“This area of Minnesota has a long history of being intolerant,” Tademe says.
The first mayor of the city of St. Cloud, Sylvanus Lowry, migrated from Kentucky in the 1850s and brought a small number of slaves with him. Other slaveholders lived in the area until the Civil War. In the 1930s, the pro-Nazi Bund movement was active in the city, Tademe says.
Recent immigration has brought more diversity to the city. But racial profiling by police and white harassment still occur, Tademe says.
Many white students come from rural areas whose demographics have changed less.
“We have a lot of students who’ve never had a friend of color,” Potter notes. “They’ve grown up in communities where there are no people of color, and they come to this campus, which is intentionally diverse. They have some culture shock.”
Saigo, who retired in 2007, says an EEOC official advised him it would take 20 years to completely change the campus climate. That timetable could be optimistic.
“Every single year, we get a new crop of folks who come here and experience a reality that they haven’t known before. So this is a place that’s never going to be happy and settled, and things are all done,” Potter says.