February 2021

The need to combat racism and build a more equitable society remains acute and urgent. Along with higher education institutions nationwide, Minnesota private colleges have been seeking out how best to respond. Each institution is following its own imperatives; these four initiatives offer just a sample of what’s underway.

Augsburg University: Department of Critical Race and Ethnicity Studies

With a student body that used to be largely white and Lutheran, Augsburg University today is “one of the most diverse private universities in the Upper Midwest,” said Karen Kaivola, provost and senior vice president of academic and student affairs. Its commitment to growing in cultural competence has led the school to undertake a truly major initiative: founding a brand-new Department of Critical Race and Ethnicity Studies.

Plans for the department were already under way when George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police — which took place only a few miles from Augsburg’s campus — “underscored for us the moral urgency of educating our students in ways that center their experience and the forces that shape it,” Kaivola said. “We have moved from a focus on diversity to a focus on equity and inclusion; more recently we have explicitly embraced our responsibility to be an anti-racist institution.”

In the spirit of that movement, the university has proceeded quickly in launching its new department. It plans to hire three new faculty members this academic year to staff the department and expects to begin offering classes as early as next fall. Soon afterward, Augsburg administrators and faculty hope to have an approved major in place to offer their students. A minor and graduate education options may follow.

Adding this critical department, Provost Kaivola said, “means that we are doing the work that is required of those who seek to enroll and educate such a wonderfully diverse mix of students.”

Carleton College: Anti-racism training

Students and alumni have been the drivers behind jump-starting the racial equity initiatives at many colleges, especially in this last eye-opening year. Such was the situation at Carleton College, whose administration last June received a set of demands from a group of Black leaders now known as the Ujamaa Collective.

Members of the Collective relayed their experiences of racism, discrimination, and disenfranchisement, Academic Support Service Director Kathy Evertz said. They also put forth their demands for institutional change, one of which was mandatory antiracism training for faculty, staff, trustees and key alumni volunteers. The Carleton administration acknowledged the importance of such an initiative to becoming a truly inclusive and supportive learning and work environment for every student, faculty, and staff member. To this end, they empaneled task forces of faculty, staff, students, and alumni to identify the training approach and to select a trainer.

Evertz, also the project manager for antiracism training, says the college’s training is spanning winter and spring trimesters. This incremental process establishes common language and concepts to explore what it means to be an antiracist institution through  five community-wide, hour-long events as well as four discussion sessions for faculty and staff — offered by racial affinity group — to explore that month’s topic in greater detail.

As for other stakeholders, the school’s trustees, key alumni leaders, volunteers and Parents Advisory Council members will attend a three-hour training session in March.

“Developing a shared understanding of how racism is manifested requires all of us to be open and vulnerable, and this naturally leads to some trepidation," said Evertz. "I think most . . . see this training as challenging but necessary to have a truly supportive and inclusive learning and work environment.”

Gustavus Adolphus College: Center for Inclusive Excellence

Kareem Watts (left) and Tom Flunker (right)
Center for Inclusive Excellence assistant director Kareem Watts (left) and director Tom Flunker (right)

Gustavus administrators and faculty also heard from students last summer about changes they would like the school to make in order to improve its racial justice and inclusion initiatives. Among those requests was one to expand the college’s Center for Inclusive Excellence, long housed in a three-room office in the Jackson Campus Center. That request was answered quickly: the much-expanded center moved to the lower level of Johnson Student Union in early February.

“Our previous space was set up for an earlier time,” center director Tom Flunker said. “As we began working with more students who had a wider range of identities — racial and ethnic as well as first generation, LGBTQ, adoptees, etc. — we needed a larger footprint for our programming.”

The center’s new space, which once housed a swimming pool and later a dance hall, is more than four times the size of its previous one, Flunker says. Along with serving as a programming center and housing the offices of the director and assistant director, the Center for Inclusive Excellence “serves as hang-out space for students,” Flunker said. “They kind of make it their home, eating lunch and visiting. The space is for students who feel a kinship with one another — social justice warriors and all who understand inclusivity and welcoming.”

Student and alumni reaction to the remodeled center has been positive, Flunker reported. Rev. Dr. Siri Erickson, chaplain of the college and special assistant to the president for diversity, equity, and inclusion, championed the project from the beginning. “Our students have been asking for this for years,” she said. “My job has been to say that the time is now and let’s find the money. We can’t wait.”

Fulfilling this promise to students, Erickson said, “represents the college’s commitment to an inclusive campus. We are investing significant resources in increasing this space and in doing so we have made it one of the most tangible, visible signs of our multi-pronged equity and inclusion plan.”

University of St. Thomas: Racial Justice Initiative

In June 2020, the University of St. Thomas launched its Racial Justice Initiative to help drive meaningful reform and change at the university and beyond. Its founding director is Distinguished University Chair and professor of history Yohuru Williams, a noted scholar of the civil rights and Black power movements, education activist, frequent national commentator and important voice on the topics of race and social justice.

The author and editor of many books and articles on African American history and politics, including Black Politics/White Power: Civil Rights Black Power and Black Panthers in New Haven (Blackwell, 2006) and Rethinking the Black Freedom Movement (Routledge, 2015), Williams was poised to leave St. Thomas for a job at St. John’s University in New York when university administrators asked him to serve as the RJI’s founding director.

In a Q&A that appears on the University of St. Thomas website, Williams explained his change of heart: “Right now, Minneapolis and St. Paul are at the epicenter of a national movement for substantive change. I opted to stay because I felt that this was an opportunity, as a historian and advocate for racial justice, to assist in this work.” 

That work, says Williams, will include facilitating research, exploring community partnerships and encouraging dialogue and critical conversations around addressing the historical roots of racial inequality in the United States. Says Williams, “I have been involved in a number of these conversations across the country, and the RJI will provide me a platform to continue that work while exploring . . . efforts to rethink and tackle issues of racism and racial disparities in Minnesota and beyond.”

By Lynette Lamb, a Minneapolis writer and a former editor of both the Macalester College and Carleton College alumni magazines