The president of the University of St. Thomas unveiled a plan to counter racism on campus Thursday as hundreds of students and faculty members staged a sit-in to signal solidarity with students of color.
The administration’s plan and the protest came in response to a report by a black St. Thomas freshman that he discovered a racial slur on his dorm room door.
President Julie Sullivan said it was the latest in a string of troubling racial incidents at the St. Paul Catholic campus, where about 85 percent of the undergraduate student body is white. She said the administration would act decisively, starting with a decision to cancel classes next Wednesday afternoon and hold a campuswide meeting followed by faculty and staff training.
“We have to use this as a turning point on our campus,” Sullivan said in an interview. “This is a reckoning for our community that I am grateful we are having.”
At the urging of the Black Empowerment Student Alliance and other campus groups, students and others staged the midday protest in the expansive lobby of the Anderson Student Center, where they sat with signs that said “Black Lives Matter” among other slogans. They listened attentively and broke in with applause as speakers said that racial intolerance on the St. Paul school’s campus has gone on for too long.
Kevyn Perkins, the St. Thomas freshman who found a racial slur scrawled on his Brady Hall dorm room door earlier this month, said he had not expected that reporting his experience would galvanize the campus. He also said earlier this fall that several students confronted him as he entered another residence hall to visit a friend and questioned if he belonged there.
He said he has received an outpouring of support from students and faculty in recent days. After he considered transferring to another campus, he said, “I decided I am not going anywhere.”
St. Thomas is investigating the Brady Hall incident and seeking tips that can be left anonymously at 651-962-TIPS (8477) or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Perkins said he scrubbed off the message before it was photographed or witnessed by others.
Students involved in the incident could face expulsion, the university said.
A St. Paul Police spokesman said that as of Thursday night, no police report on the incident had been filed.
In an open letter to the St. Thomas administration, the Anti-Racism Coalition, a group of faculty and staff members formed in 2015, noted that less than two years ago, three students had written a racial slur on a campus sidewalk. It also listed several other racially charged incidents since, including an anti-immigrant poster found in a residence hall earlier this year.
The letter said that despite a series of “teach-ins” and other efforts organized by the coalition, racism on campus remains an issue, and the administration and university community must redouble efforts to address it.
In the shorter term, the president’s “Action Plan to Combat Racism” includes:
• Encouraging faculty to address race in the classroom.
• Launching an anti-hate campaign.
• Offering trauma resources focusing on students of color.
• Increasing the diversity of campus counselors.
• Providing anti-bias training to all students, staff and faculty this academic year.
• Bringing in an outside organization to assess the campus climate and diversity efforts.
Longer term, the school plans to continue efforts to help professors tackle issues of race in the classroom, recruit and keep more students and employees of color and boost financial aid for minority students.
Students on a number of private and University of Minnesota campuses have protested racial incidents and discrimination in recent years. One high-profile incident, a typewritten threat tucked into a black St. Olaf College student’s windshield last year, was found to be a hoax to draw attention to the racial climate on that campus, where it was one of a string of incidents.
At St. Thomas, Sullivan said the administration crafted the plan with student and faculty input, and will continue to flesh it out as it hears from more campus community members.
Malcolm Lawson, a St. Thomas junior who helped organize Thursday’s sit-in, said student leaders want to study the plan more closely and engage with the administration before weighing in. Lawson, who said he also experienced a racial incident as a freshman, said he was heartened by the turnout at the Anderson Center event.
“It’s something that had not been done before on the St. Thomas campus,” he said, “so we wanted to be the trailblazers.”