Dear fellow St. Olaf Students!
Before jumping into the summary of the Board meeting, check out our newest posts on the BORSC blog (for example the Response to Concerns about Staff and Faculty Payment, or past newsletters. If you didn't receive this email via the borsc-updates email list and would like to be kept in the loop, sign up here.
From Thursday, the 13th, to Friday, the 14th October 2020, the first fully digital St. Olaf Board of Regents meeting took place. The video conference format did not only cause the meeting to be shorter overall, but also BORSC being allocated only twelve minutes for our biannual presentation on students’ perspectives. Thanks to our presentation being scheduled within the first session, it could be referred back to throughout the meeting. Our two topics, attending college during a pandemic and racism as well as antiracist action, were key to the meeting anyway.
The selection of these topics as the areas of focus had occurred in the beginning of the semester. BORSC is supposed to present on topics that aid the Board meeting in general, and from early on, it was clear that these two topics were both on the minds of students as well as on the agenda for the meeting. We reached out to students with a poster campaign, inviting them to submit any type of feedback, suggestions and grievances they want the administration and the Board to know about. We created an instagram account this year that was promoted both by the SGA instagram account and the school instagram account story (in the context of promoting the extracurricular fair). We tabled in front of Buntrock for students to submit their feedback to us directly or be sent the link to our anonymous feedback form.
We also sent out an email including a link to the form and two prompts to various email groups, along with the request to forward it to whoever might be interested to fill it out. While any submissions were welcome, we specifically asked for students to respond to: “How did the reopening during a pandemic go?” and “What actions need to be taken by the college and on campus regarding race-related matters?” The phrasing of the section question was chosen to encourage those students who have made experiences with racism to respond. Of course, many non-racialized students will have a lack of experiences simply because they are not the potential victims of racial discrimination. The phrasing therefore also served to acknowledge the existence of racism and related issues on campus, sparing affected students the work of having to repeatedly establish this fact.
Typically, the Regents enjoy the BORSC presentation as it is a way (usually the only scheduled opportunity) for them to interact with students. But due to time constraints and for the sake of efficiency, we decided to only have three BORSC members present this fall. The presenters were chosen based on their preferences and seniority, as most of the BORSC members will hopefully be able to present some time in the future.
Logan Graham ‘22 shared students’ perceptions of the reopening. We found that overall, there was a consensus that it had gone mostly well. In our presentation, we highlighted some specific grievances: the conditions around dining areas, difficulties establishing social connections - especially for first year students, confusion about academic matters, and the ways in which low-income students were put into especially vulnerable positions as housing and financial insecurity were affected by changes in direction.
Modupe Botti ‘22 and Guadalupe Guerrero ’21 spoke about race-related issues and steps towards antiracism. First, they established that it is not a new fact that students with different racial identities have significantly different experiences on campus. Data from surveys committed by St. Olaf College in the past backs this up. It was important for us to mention that the current momentum of the conversation was created by BIPOC students and faculty who left, and point out the Race and Ethnic Studies program as one of the currently existing safe spaces for students to discuss and learn about topics related to racism.
They then went to elaborate on specific concerns brought to us by students: Lack of proactive handling of criticism and the creation of an antiracist environment via faculty and staff, a practice of diverting the conversation about racism to student responsibility, questioning the validity of experiences, and visible board and administration accountability for antiracist implementation.
Lastly, Modupe and Guadalupe spoke about suggested action steps for antiracism. They began by emphasizing the importance of taking focus away from numbers and categories, but instead the implementation of an intersectional approach that considers students not only based on their racial categorization but other identities as well and pays attention to how these intersect and create new inequalities. Another key step raised by students is community standard enforcement. While the bias incident reporting system is an important step, it needs to be ensured that antiracism is given attention in New Student Orientation and other key points of student life. Enforcement mechanisms need to be observed and revised when necessary.
Given the importance of the Race and Ethnic Studies program as mentioned before, another step we suggested taking is to turn the program into a department. This would grant it a physical space on campus as well as funding and stability. Lastly, in order for the college to follow up on its promises to listen and improve, many students considered it vital to revisit the demands communicated by various student groups not only this year, but also, e.g., in 2017.
The reactions that we received from Board members showed many took our input seriously. Some seemed surprised by some of our accounts of the continuous presence of issues around racism, equity and inclusion. Others asked what part the Board should take on to facilitate antiracism. This question, while well-intended, came across a little odd as we gave concrete examples and pointers in our presentation. I also pointed out that we as BORSC serve to convey the views and experiences of the student body, but we are students ourselves. While some of us study racism and racist systems within our academic curriculum in St. Olaf, this does not make us knowledge authorities in effective combat of it.
“DEI,” that is, diversity, equity and inclusion, was a key topic throughout the meeting. María Pabon Gautíer from the Taylor Center, Bruce King, the Vice President for Equity and Inclusion; a representative from the admissions office, Norman Lee, a Biology professor; and several regents added to the conversation.
In the Corporate Session on Friday, the Board members unanimously voted for the establishment of a Board Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (this proposal was created before the meeting). The goals of this committee include, among other points, the recruitment and retention of BIPOC students, faculty and staff, as well as - which is especially important - a representational composition both of Board of Regents members as well as leaders and decision makers within the administration on campus.
During our communication with students in preparation for the presentation, we were pointed towards many areas and topics that we could not include in the Fall presentation due to a lack of time and information. We are full of motivation to continue our work for the remainder of the semester, and the academic year. Our form works year-round, and we also follow up questions and issues with the Presidential Leadership Team (PLT) on a regular basis. Please know you can always get in touch with us: via the form, an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or during our office hours - Wednesdays and Fridays 11:45 AM - 12:45 PM, Thursdays 12:15 - 1:15 PM, or upon request.
Have a great weekend!
Fricka Lindemann ‘22 on behalf of the BORSC Team