St. Olaf College is defending its decision to bar a conservative activist from speaking on campus in April, saying it was a matter of poor timing.

The college said it would be "inappropriate" to bring Ben Shapiro, a controversial author and podcast host, to the Northfield campus on April 23 because the date coincided with the anniversary of anti-racism protests that swept the campus last year.

The reasoning didn't go over well with the students who invited Shapiro, or Shapiro himself.

"What's the connection?" asked Kathryn Hinderaker, a conservative student leader who led the effort to bring Shapiro to campus. The protests, she noted, were sparked by reports of students receiving racist notes, one of which turned out to be a hoax.

"There shouldn't be any reason he can't come in on this specific date," she said.

Shapiro, who has drawn protests at campuses across the country for his provocative views, dismissed St. Olaf's argument as "nonsense."

"I fail to understand why exactly my presence on campus has anything to do with a racial hoax," he wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. He spoke at the University of Minnesota in February, drawing protesters.

Shapiro is a Harvard Law School graduate who delights in mocking liberal politics. Among his books: "Bullies: How the Left's Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans," and "Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America's Youth."

Carl Crosby Lehmann, the college's vice president and general counsel, said there was no intention to link Shapiro to last year's incident. "We nonetheless believe his appearance on our campus at that time would have been counterproductive," he said. "I don't think it's debatable that he is a divisive person."

Hinderaker, a junior, said she began working with college officials in December to arrange Shapiro's April appearance. She said the speech was being funded by Turning Point USA, a national group for conservative students. But about a week before the contract was to be finalized in February, she said, she learned that the college would not agree to the scheduled date.

"We are open to having Mr. Shapiro speak at St. Olaf," Lehmann told her in a Feb. 13 e-mail. But "having him here during the anniversary of last year's protests is not appropriate." He asked her to explore other times. "Can we look at dates next winter or spring?"

Hinderaker says she was told that Shapiro had no other available dates in 2018, although the college believed otherwise. She appealed her case to David R. Anderson, the college president, and launched an e-mail campaign to try to reverse St. Olaf's decision.

In an e-mail reply, Anderson wrote on Feb. 15: "I share your interest in ensuring that diverse viewpoints are expressed on our campus, including the perspectives of conservative speakers like Mr. Shapiro." But the scheduled date, he said, "is at a time that coincides with the anniversary of last year's protests. This is deeply concerning. Our campus is still healing from that experience."

Last April, students staged sit-ins and protests after a series of racist notes and graffiti were reported on campus. On April 29, a black student reported that she had found a threatening note on the windshield of her car, and two days later, the college canceled classes after students threatened a boycott and took over the administration building. A week later, college officials announced that the last note had been exposed as a hoax. The other incidents are still under investigation, Lehmann said.

Since then, St. Olaf has formed a working group to address the concerns that led to the unrest. "The protest made us take stock of how we as a college make students of different cultures, races, socio-economic backgrounds, and beliefs feel not only welcome, but included," the college said in a statement Friday. "We hope that the anniversary of last year will be an opportunity to bring the campus closer together and not to divide us further apart."

The college has offered to find another time to bring Shapiro to campus, Lehmann said. "For us, this has always been just about the timing," he said.

Hinderaker, though, believes there was more to it. "It's absolutely their right to say no, but I don't think that means we should let them get away with that," she said. "I want to go to a college that promotes the free discussion of ideas. That's the college I thought I was going to."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384