The entry to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Students had a sinking feeling of déjà vu earlier this month when two staff members of color announced their resignations from St. Olaf College within days of each other. 

On February 9, the student newspaper, the Olaf Messenger, published music librarian Ellen Ogihara’s resignation letter to her colleagues, which stated she was leaving the college due to racial bias and “extreme microaggressions.” This news came a week after Bruce King, the school’s vice president for equity and inclusion, sent an all-campus email sharing his plans to depart St. Olaf at the end of February to move to Chicago.

It was the second time since June that two employees of color had announced their resignations at once.

“Over the last two years since I began this position, the environment at the college, and within the libraries and IT, has become increasingly hostile,” Ogihara wrote in a letter to colleagues. “As a person of color, I no longer feel safe or welcome at this institution.”

The departure announcement from King, a longtime St. Olaf administrator who in August became the school’s vice president for equity and inclusion, contained few details.

“In all the ways St. Olaf has been a home to me over the years, I feel more strongly than ever the call to return to my original hometown of Chicago to live fully into the next chapter of my life,” he wrote.

Students were left disheartened and confused by the announcements. Months earlier, two Black professors, Michelle Cowin Gibbs and Lisa Moore, cited racial bias and anti-Blackness in their departure messages. Taken together, the letters from Gibbs, Moore, and Ogihara describe a school environment that stifles new voices and ideas. 

The departures reflect a pattern throughout higher education: While colleges like St. Olaf strive to rapidly increase diversity of enrollment and employment, the campus culture changes at a slower pace—leaving some of the new faculty, staff, and students feeling unwelcome. The administration maintains that the campus climate is improving—and employees who leave may do so for their own reasons.

‘I had colleagues treating me like I had the plague’

St. Olaf, a nationally ranked, private liberal arts college on a scenic campus in rural Northfield, is home to about 3,000 undergraduate students. Since Lutheran Norwegian immigrants founded the school 1874, the college has grown in national stature. In recent years, the college has attracted an increasingly diverse student body. The school is renowned for its music and choral programs; its choir is widely considered one of the best in the country.

But Ogihara’s resignation letter suggests that not everyone’s experience with the school’s vaunted music programs has been harmonious.

The letter, originally sent January 29 to colleagues, appeared on February 9 in the Olaf Messenger with her permission. It describes a difficult decision between a job she’d loved and her own wellbeing. 

“My experiences at this college had traumatized me beyond belief, and I had lost my passion completely,” she wrote.

Ogihara, a violinist, dancer, and librarian specializing in music, came to St. Olaf in 2019 after receiving her master’s degree in library science from Indiana University. She worked as the research and instruction librarian for music and the fine arts. Although diversifying the college’s music collection was part of her job description, Ogihara wrote that she received no support to enact these diversity efforts—for example, to collect music by Black composers. 

Then, as COVID-19 began to spread in February 2020, Ogihara observed some co-workers were treating her differently.

“At a time when Asians were being blamed for the spread of the virus, I had colleagues treating me like I had the plague, or humiliating me in front of my coworkers, aggressively yelling at me to wash my hands or stop touching my face,” she wrote.

In her departure letter, Ogihara recounted what happened when she criticized materials on a diversity, equity, and inclusion reading list that questioned the concept of racism. Ogihara stated that white supremacy was real at St. Olaf. In turn, a human resources representative told her that her use of that term made colleagues uncomfortable.

Ogihara’s email was reminiscent of June letters from Michelle Gibbs, then an assistant professor in the theater department, and Lisa Moore, a departing associate professor in social work and family studies.

Gibbs, now an assistant professor of theatre arts at Illinois Wesleyan University, is a solo performance artist and director whose scholarly interests include Black dance performance and early 20th century Black modernist theater. She received her Ph.D. in theater from Bowling Green State University and master’s in fine arts from the University of California–Irvine. 

She’d read Ogihara’s letter and she told Sahan Journal the account mirrored her own experience at St. Olaf. 

After arriving in 2016, Gibbs said the feedback she received from her departmental colleagues made her feel like she had to teach courses the same way they’d always been taught. She had no room to innovate. This tension also made it harder to demonstrate the unique perspective she brought to the classroom.

Gibbs ran a theater ensemble for students of color, and students told Sahan Journal many considered her a mother figure. But in her June 13 email to faculty, she described “white rage” from students, frivolous complaints, and disconnected colleagues.

While she was excited about her new position, she was also giving up what had been a dream job. “I am leaving St. Olaf College because as a Black woman I don’t have the full support of my white colleagues at the college,” she wrote.

Before coming to St. Olaf, Moore co-directed the women’s center at Stanford University, worked as an assistant dean of multicultural affairs at Reed College, and taught at Boston University. Moore left this summer to become the director of the master’s degree program in social work and social welfare at the University of Chicago. 

In a June 15 email to faculty, Moore described Gibbs’s message as “what is likely the most honest account you will get from a Black woman faculty about their experience at this college.”

“St. Olaf embodies anti-blackness in a way that few places I have ever worked have,” Moore continued. “The whiteness of campus felt oppressive in a way that no other place I have worked has.”

No place is perfect, Moore wrote, but “I’ve worked and attended institutions where we smiled more and cried a lot less.”

The letters from Gibbs and Moore struck a chord with Ogihara, she wrote. “They were tenure-track faculty, not staff, like me; yet they also experienced the same issues, and decided that leaving the college was the only solution,” she wrote.

Ogihara and Moore did not respond to interview requests from Sahan Journal.

In her email, Gibbs implored her white colleagues to engage in antiracist work to learn how to become allies to support faculty of color. “Or,” she wrote, “I won’t be the last Black woman to leave the college.”

‘Just disheartening’

Students were disappointed but not surprised by Ogihara’s resignation.

“The departure of so many BIPOC faculty and staff is just disheartening,” said Lydia Bermel, a junior race and ethnic studies and English major at St. Olaf.  “They are vital to the health and safety of BIPOC students on campus. It really hurts to see that they don’t feel that appreciation when they are changing so many people’s lives, and their relationships are so important.”

Students described Ogihara’s resignation as emblematic of the problems experienced by other faculty and staff of color, and the lack of diversity in the academic curriculum.

Joshua Wyatt, who uses they/them* pronouns, has encountered these issues in their two majors—race and ethnic studies, and dance—while also serving as a member of St. Olaf’s Cultural Union for Black Expression. Wyatt cited “the elitism that we have in our music department” as “really upsetting,” and a reason for Ogihara’s departure. 

They expressed disappointment that the music curriculum has left out many iconic Black composers, such as Quincy Jones. “What does it say when I can’t study him and his genius because it isn’t expressed in a way that St. Olaf wants it to be—which is a code word for white.”

Wyatt added, “That’s not only a music issue; that prevails throughout all of the arts.” By leaving, they said, Ogihara “took her own agency and power back.”

Joshua Wyatt, who is majoring in dance and race and ethnic studies, wants to see more representation from BIPOC artists like them reflected in the curriculum. Credit: Courtesy Joshua Wyatt

This frustration is a familiar one for St. Olaf students, who have been pressuring the administration to make institutional changes since a series of campus protests in 2017. The protests, sparked by a racist note left on the window of a student’s car, gained national media attention, and led to students calling for the resignation of their president, David Anderson. 

The note on the windshield turned out to be a hoax, but it came on the heels of nine other reported incidents of hate speech during that school year and fueled calls for institutional change. 

Gabe Alada, a junior English major and member of the organization Oles Against Inequality, was an organizer for a Black Lives Matter event in the fall that featured speeches by both President Anderson and Bruce King. Alada described feeling a sense of betrayal after seeing Ellen Ogihara’s resignation.

“It definitely feels like the President’s words were empty in the fall, considering what’s happened since,” he said. “A lot of it seems to be for publicity. They hide behind their empty words without working to fix the problems.”

In recent years, the administration has made moves to support diversity on campus. These initatives have included the creation of new positions like King’s, and task forces to prevent racial discrimination and microaggressions in classrooms. But the resignations of Michelle Gibbs and Ellen Ogihara have left students questioning the college’s commitment to these efforts. 

“St. Olaf is very cosmetic, and they bring in people for how it looks to bring someone in,” said Wyatt. “Like most BIPOC and queer people who are brought on to campus, they’re never allowed to actually do their job to fix things.”

Wyatt also spoke at the Black Lives Matter event last fall, albeit not in a scheduled appearance like King and Anderson. As the event concluded, Wyatt walked to the podium and delivered an impromptu speech criticizing the administration for its hypocrisy. They cited deeper racial issues that plague the school’s community, which they felt weren’t being addressed.

While St. Olaf has taken public steps to deal with systemic racism, Wyatt remains critical of the school’s motivations.

“I’m not going to say St. Olaf hasn’t made good steps because they have, but for what reasons or for what purpose? I feel like they’re misguided,” they told Sahan Journal. “Most of their decisions are reactionary; they’re not proactive enough for me.”

‘I am doing this for me’

King’s departure announcement—unlike those from Ogihara, Gibbs, and Moore—cited no concerns about the campus climate. Still, the timing of his resignation, and the fact that he was vacating a position leading equity and inclusion work at the school, struck some students as odd. 

But in an interview with Sahan Journal, King explained that after 13 years at St. Olaf, he simply decided it was time to move closer to loved ones. He is originally from Chicago. His partner of three years and his brothers live there.

“I think that COVID has taught us a lesson about how valuable time is and how short life is,” he said. “It was really a well-thought-out personal decision about moving my life.”

His brothers, son, and sister-in-law have all been sick with COVID-19, King said. In the past four months, he’s received nine funeral notices for friends and acquaintances in his age bracket.

Resigning in February, rather than between academic years, might have caught people off guard, he said. 

“I think the only problem is, for the first time in 53 years, my life wasn’t decided on the academic calendar,” he said. “But when it’s time, it’s time. And I wanted to take agency over my own decision-making.”

Before starting his position as vice president of equity and inclusion in August, he served as assistant to the president and chief diversity officer at St. Olaf. King pointed to the progress the campus has made since he arrived at St. Olaf in 2008. 

The percentage of students of color has increased from 7 percent when he arrived to 25 percent in this year’s freshman class. Less than 3 percent of faculty were people of color when he started; that’s now up to almost 19 percent.

While the numbers of faculty and staff of color have increased, he said, individual departures on a small campus can leave a hole. And while, after 13 years, he can see the long view of increasing diversity at St. Olaf, a student who’s on campus for just a few years might not see it that way.

“I have to acknowledge that it hurts us all, but I think especially for students who are there for such a short time,” he said.

King added, however, that employee turnover doesn’t always mean something is wrong.

“We’ve worked very hard to make sure that when people leave, they’re leaving because it’s their choice to leave,” he said. “When people leave to go to the University of Chicago to become chair of the graduate social work program”—as Moore did—“I think that that is not always a bad thing.”

And when white faculty and staff leave, he said, their choices aren’t held up to the same scrutiny.

“I do want to acknowledge that people of color have the right to make choices about whether they stay or go,” he said. “This idea that white people can do whatever they want to do, and if a Black or brown person makes choices there’s got to be something wrong, strikes me as very interesting.”

At St. Olaf, that perception is fueled by the fact that three women of color have left public resignation letters in less than a year. King noted that the campus still has “a lot of work that needs to be done,” but emphasized that his motivation is personal.

“I am not moving because it’s a better job, I’m not doing this because it makes good economic sense,” he said. “I am doing this for me. And I don’t think we see enough people of color, especially in Minnesota, demonstrating what it means to put their lives first.”

‘People shouldn’t have to choose their work over themselves’

Aireale Rodgers, a researcher at the University of Southern California Rossier Pullias Center for Higher Education, studies institutional change in higher education related to equity and inclusion. She told Sahan Journal that faculty of color, and particularly Black faculty, often feel like they have to choose between their job and their wellbeing.

“It’s not enough to increase percentages around racial composition in the faculty or the student body,” she said. 

Although the numbers of staff and students of color may grow, she said, they may still face challenges when they come into a predominantly white institution. One may be the expectation to assimilate into the dominant culture.

“What it means to be a faculty member is very much steeped in norms of whiteness,” she said. Professors of color often find their legitimation within academia depends on how they perform these norms.

With a professor at Montclair State University, she’s currently conducting an empirical study on doctoral students of color on the academic job market. While it’s early in the data collection and analysis process, some initial results are striking. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing how students think about their job prospects, and what they are willing to sacrifice for a job. It’s a question Rodgers, a doctoral student herself, has been wrestling with, too.

“I think the story of sacrifice is all too familiar for folks of color in academia, especially folks of color who are interested in and committed to work around racial equity,” she said. “I think that COVID is kind of shifting the landscape of how people are making decisions and what’s tolerable and what’s not. And I think that’s a beautiful thing, because people shouldn’t have to choose their work over themselves.”

‘Night and day’

In her second semester at Illinois Wesleyan University, Gibbs says her experience is “night and day” from her time at St. Olaf. She’s able to innovate in her theater courses. Her colleagues are excited about her ideas and ask how they can support her. She’s involved in extracurricular activities and mentoring students. 

“I feel like I’m growing as a teacher and a scholar,” she said. “This is what it feels like to really feel like you’re a part of something.”

*Correction: This article has been changed to reflect that Joshua Wyatt uses they/them pronouns.

Becky Z. Dernbach

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Eli Tan is a Seattle-born journalist and writer who currently attends St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He’s interested in writing about sports, social issues, and the stories of everyday people....