The University of St. Thomas School of Law in downtown Minneapolis. The law school recently shuttered its Center on Race, Leadership, and Social Justice. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

The founding director of the Center on Race, Leadership and Social Justice at St. Thomas School of Law has left the university. Her departure follows the closure of the program last May.

Artika Tyner announced Thursday on LinkedIn that she had left her job.

“I am no longer employed by the University of St. Thomas,” she wrote. “My position was eliminated, and the Center was closed by the administration.”

Tyner thanked her students and mentors from her 17 years working at St. Thomas. 

“I hope the University can one day realize the vision of racial justice and equity as outlined by our founder, Archbishop [John] Ireland: ‘I know no color line, I will acknowledge none ….The time is not distant when Americans and Christians will wonder that there ever was a race prejudice,’” she wrote.

Tyner grew up in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, and received her bachelor’s degree from Hamline University. At St. Thomas, she earned three graduate degrees: a law degree, a master’s in public policy and leadership, and a doctorate in leadership. Throughout her 17 years at St. Thomas, she worked in a range of roles that included teaching public policy and law classes, as well as leading diversity and inclusion initiatives.

In addition to her work at St. Thomas, Tyner runs a literacy nonprofit focused on publishing and promoting diverse books. She is also a children’s book author; motivational speaker; and a 2022 Bush Fellow, a prestigious award for Minnesota leaders, which includes up to $100,000 in grant funding. 

Tyner did not immediately respond to an interview request.

Johnathon McClellan, a rising third-year law student at St. Thomas and the president of the nonprofit Minnesota Justice Coalition, described Tyner as an exceptional teacher whose honesty and authenticity inspired him to do his best work.

“There’s something special about her classes,” he said. “She really knows her students and she goes out of her way to ensure that we learn the content and that we’re able to understand. But more importantly, that we can work to find solutions to problems.” 

Many students were “dumbfounded” at the news of her departure, he said.

In January 2019, the University of St. Thomas announced the creation of the Center on Race, Leadership, and Social Justice. School leaders heralded the program’s creation.

“The center will provide law students the opportunity to leverage legal training to address social justice challenges,” said Julie Sullivan, who was then St. Thomas’ president. “Students will interface with lawyers in the community who are fighting for justice and equity and gain in-depth insights related to civil rights, human rights law, and advocacy.”

Tommie Media, the student-run online news organization, wrote that the Center would give St. Thomas “a competitive edge.” Rob Vischer, then the dean of the School of Law, told Tommie Media that the Center would bring together “a focus on scholarly research, student learning, public advocacy, and community partnership.” Tyner described her intentions to incorporate visiting fellows to support the Center’s work.

But the Center closed at the end of the 2021–2022 school year. 

In a July 2022 Facebook post, the Center took note of the change: “The Center on Race, Leadership and Social Justice was closed by the University administration and Dr. Tyner’s director position was eliminated (effective May 31, 2022). We would like to thank our Law and Public Policy Scholars for your research and advocacy. We are also grateful for the remarkable students who served on our research teams and participated in our leadership classes.”

A social justice program without funding

In a statement to Sahan Journal, the University of St. Thomas blamed fundraising challenges for the Center’s closure.

“In 2019, the University of St. Thomas created and provided startup funding for the Center on Race, Leadership and Social Justice for its first three years of operations, with the understanding that the Center would be responsible for maintaining operations through fundraising after that time,” the university said. “The Center ceased operations at the end of the 2021–22 academic year because fundraising was not sufficient to support the costs of the Center.”

“The Center ceased operations at the end of the 2021–22 academic year because fundraising was not sufficient to support the costs of the Center.”

University of St. Thomas statement

In its statement to Sahan Journal, St. Thomas emphasized the school’s ongoing commitment to social justice. This includes initiatives like the Racial Justice Initiative, which trains corporate leaders on racial history and helps students research policing; and the Community Justice Project, a class where students have the opportunity to help solve public policy problems—and which Tyner helped to start. 

“We are thankful for the time that Dr. Tyner spent at the university and for the important research and advocacy work of our law and public policy scholars,” the university added.

McClellan questioned why such an enriching and popular program had been left to depend on uncertain fundraising plans. Any student in a Tyner class would describe it as one of their best experiences at St. Thomas, and key to their development as a lawyer, he said.

“I think that they don’t understand the value of a program that provides leadership around racial and social justice.”

Johnathon McClellan, rising third-year at St. Thomas School of Law

“When you have courses like that, this is where you need to put your funding,” he said. “I think that they don’t understand the value of a program that provides leadership around racial and social justice.”

Teaching with a ‘passion for justice’

One of the Center’s primary initiatives was bringing law and public policy scholars to the University of St. Thomas. Glenda Simmons Jenkins’s fellowship at the Center ran through the 2021–2022 school year. Simmons Jenkins lives in Florida and represents that state in the  Gullah/Geechee Nation Assembly of Representatives, helping Gullah/Geechee people retain land ownership. The Gullah/Geechee are descendants of enslaved people, brought to coastal areas of the American Southeast, who have retained many African traditions.

Simmons Jenkins describes feeling an immediate kinship with Tyner. She saw parallels to her own experience in Tyner’s story of the Rondo community in St. Paul, where the construction of Interstate 94 broke up a Black neighborhood and many people lost their land.

Through her fellowship at the Center, Simmons Jenkins delivered several lectures, describing the land loss in the Gullah/Geechee community. She became a resource for students, who asked her questions and consulted her on their projects and papers. She was impressed at how engaged the students were, despite the fact that classes were online during that pandemic year.

“I can’t say enough about Dr. Tyner’s expertise,” Simmons Jenkins said. “Her passion for her students, her passion for justice, and how the coursework that she prepared was creating an immersive experience—to the extent that she could from a distance—for her students to understand the lived experience of people who are considered underserved, underresourced, and marginalized.”

McClellan heard Simmons Jenkins speak in one of his classes. Despite his deep knowledge of African American history, he said, he’d been unfamiliar with the Gullah/Geechee Nation. Learning about it directly from Simmons Jenkins helped deepen his understanding, he said. 

“To be around individuals who are part of that can provide more enrichment than any book,” he said.

Simmons Jenkins said she felt disappointed when she saw Tyner’s LinkedIn post.

“It is a loss for the university and most especially a loss for the students,” she said. “An encounter with Dr. Tyner is an encounter with the ability to think critically, to examine a topic from many different angles and perspectives, and to challenge yourself to understand how the Constitution applies across individual and collective experience in a real way that translates to everyday life.”

The Center’s closure will leave a gap, she said. 

Future students “will not have as well-rounded an education as they would have if the Center still existed,” she said.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...