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A fight for tolerance

Kenneth J. Cooper | 12/20/2011, 4:21 p.m.

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.