The University of St. Thomas canceled classes Wednesday afternoon for an unprecedented campuswide discussion on racism prompted by a black student’s report of finding a racial slur scrawled on his dorm-room door.
While university officials said they were “sending a clear message” about racism, Kevyn Perkins, the freshman student who reported the slur, called it “just talk.”
The meeting was one part of university administrators’ official response to the allegation and other reports of racism on the Catholic university’s St. Paul campus. It came about a week after hundreds of St. Thomas students and faculty members staged a sit-in to show solidarity with students of color, and St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan released a lengthy “Action Plan to Combat Racism.”
The day’s events were closed to the media, and reporters were instructed to stay off campus through the afternoon. But Sullivan said she believed the meeting went “fabulously well,” drawing a standing-room-only crowd of more than 5,000 students, staff and faculty members. She and other speakers spent the afternoon talking about the university’s history and its commitment to do better to ensure that students feel respected and welcomed.
“We talked about what are we called to do,” she said. “We are called to send a clear message about what we stand for, and to send a clear message about what we won’t tolerate.”
Sullivan said university administrators are attempting to take decisive action in part because it comes at the same time the U.S. has experienced a series of high-profile crimes motivated by hatred of others’ race, religion or political views. That point was echoed by the day’s keynote speaker, Dale Allender, an assistant professor of language and literacy at California State University, Sacramento, who frequently leads literacy and diversity training at schools and universities around the country.
Allender said he planned to encourage students to take concrete steps to take care of themselves and others on campus — and to not shy away from calling out problems.
“I want them to take more personal responsibility for each other’s security,” he said. “I want them to really, really document what they see and hear: both acts of hate and acts of love, and make sure they are constantly talking about this stuff.”
In a lengthier training session for faculty members, Allender said he expected to talk about the need to make diversity and inclusion a priority in their work, both in and out of the classroom.
Allender was also on campus Tuesday evening for a forum with students, an event he said “inspired me greatly.”
“They were concerned and they were hurt and they were aware and they want things to be different,” he said.
Sullivan said she intends to invite Allender back to campus on a monthly basis during this academic year. But she and other campus leaders may need to do more to convince some of the university’s students that they are doing their best to prevent racism at St. Thomas.
Perkins said he was disappointed by Wednesday’s meeting, an event he characterized as “all talk.” He said he observed people at the meeting making it clear that they did not want to be there, including a professor he said he overheard saying she’d rather be teaching class.
He said the alleged incident and the university’s response has made him question if he’s truly welcome at St. Thomas, where about 85 percent of undergraduate students are white.
“I have mixed emotions about being a student [at St. Thomas],” Perkins said. “I always knew I was the odd one out, the minority, but it’s an eye-opener to me.”
Malcolm Lawson, a St. Thomas junior who helped organize last week’s sit-in, said administrators had the right intentions in setting up Wednesday’s meeting. But he wants to hear more specifics about what the university is doing to root out the kind of racism he’s experienced on campus.
“Having dealt with this three years in a row now, it’s something that I’m tired of talking about,” he said. “I’m tired of people feeling emboldened that they can do this and get away with it.”
Sullivan said the university has reported the recent incident to St. Paul police, but officials have not identified any suspects. Any student suspected of writing the message on Perkins’ door would go through the university’s student judicial system and could face expulsion.
St. Thomas officials are now moving forward with other steps in Sullivan’s plan, including launching a campuswide, anti-bias training program and doing more to recruit and retain faculty members of color.
Virgil Wiebe, a professor of law at St. Thomas, said he is heartened by the administration’s plan.
“These are issues that the university needs to face,” he said. “The comprehensive steps they are considering make a lot of sense.”