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"We're going to solve these issues"
By Jeff Horwich
Minnesota Public Radio
April 29, 2002

Students may be getting ready to leave for the summer, but lawsuits and contract disputes will continue. At the same time, a university task force will be working on new reforms. And the results of new studies may help the school shake its troubled reputation.

Theresia Fisher
Faculty Association President Theresia Fisher, right, works with a student.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Computer science professor Theresia Fisher just finished a term as president of the faculty association. During her tenure, she dealt with professors on both sides of discrimination complaints.

"We could compare the situation at St. Cloud State to any other state university, and it's a huge difference," she says. "The number of grievances, the number of affirmative action complaints, the sit-ins, the protests, the bad press, the lawsuits - I mean, it just never ends."

By way of example, Fisher points out St. Cloud State has 14 official faculty grievances before MnSCU at the moment. Minnesota State University, Mankato, a school of comparable size, has four. Like most critics, Fisher believes St. Cloud State is not filled with racists or anti-Semites. And the numbers show the school is more diverse in most areas of campus life than many regional institutions.

She sees the problem in the processes set up to handle complaints that do arise.

"Those processes limp along, and then some decision comes out of those processes that nobody respects, and then the net effect is actually worse that before a complaint or grievance was filed," Fisher says. "We aren't able to resolve anything internally. Not anything. And so everything blows up."

Sarah Johnson
Senior Sarah Johnson donned pins supporting various professors at a recent anti-discrimination rally.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Many who see major problems here say the rebuilding process will truly begin when St. Cloud State's president declares unconditionally that the school has major issues. Steven Silberfarb heads the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. The school asked the JCRC to study the climate on campus.

"Millions of dollars of taxpayer money have been spent settling lawsuits at St. Cloud State University, or defending lawsuits at St. Cloud State University," Silberfarb said. "And before more dollars are spent doing that, it would seem to me that the university ought to publicly state one way or the other what's happened."

"How can an academic make one blanket statement, yes or no?" asks St. Cloud State President Roy Saigo. "What institutions, other universities, don't have problems? Race issues, religious issues - we'll always have problems. But what we've put in place are cooperative efforts to put in place a task force and study these issues, and achieve where we need to be."

Steven Silberfarb
Steven Silberfarb is president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. St. Cloud State asked the JCRC to study the campus climate. Listen to his observations.
(Courtesy of JCRC)

That task force came together after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission called in February for major measures to restore faith in the on-campus complaint processes.

Just this month, the task force recommended additional task forces to look at specific divisions with perpetual problems. These are the College of Social Sciences and the College of Education, which generates more teachers than anywhere else in Minnesota.

Ironically, by convening task forces and commissioning studies, the university further antagonizes some of its sharpest critics. Teacher development professor Geoffrey Tabakin is party to a pending lawsuit saying St. Cloud State is a hostile environment for Jews.

"The risk-taking they do is about looking good without substantively doing anything," Tabakin said. "Instead of recognizing that they can move forward, they would rather indulge themselves by spending lots of money on public relations."

Tabakin says he is still trying to get anti-Semitism put into the school's affirmative action statement, something he says he was promised in a 1990 court settlement.

SCSU President Roy Saigo
University President Roy Saigo says he's working towards improving the environment at St. Cloud State. Listen to his comments.
(Courtesy of SCSU)

Prof. Mike Davis recently co-wrote a letter to Twin Cities guidance counselors, urging blacks to think twice before coming to St. Cloud State.

"Everybody's upset over this letter," said Davis. "Why? We didn't do anything. We just blew the whistle. 'Clean it up, or we will do it for you.' After 13 years, I'm sick and tired of it."

Criminal justice professor Dick Andzenge says there is no chance to read about the good things that are happening, on and off campus. Andzenge says politics and a tradition of antagonism obscure the fact that change is underway.

"What distresses that at St. Cloud State we are unwilling to admit efforts that are being made, and successes that are being made, in dealing with certain problems," Andzenge said. "Because we fear that if we admitted those efforts and those successes, we will be seen as denying the problem."

Andzenge knows he is called an "Uncle Tom" by some faculty of color, because he recognizes the positive trends on campus.

"We're losing a lot of wonderful experience. The good news is that we're bringing a lot of people in. We have different ideas and different approaches and it's going to be a vibrant place again."

- St. Cloud State University President Roy Saigo

"The number of minority hires has gone up quite a bit at St. Cloud State the past few years," he said. "The fact that right now we have a president who is a minority, we have the president of the faculty senate who is a minority, the president of the student body who is a minority, I think means a lot."

One person most represents the hope that St. Cloud State will regain some credibility on discrimination issues. Tracy Bowe was hired in December as a special affirmative action investigator. Some faculty worry her new position only confuses an already-muddled process. But Bowe comes as close as any administrator to what the school's critics want to hear.

"The type of publicity we've been getting, I don't see as necessarily bad," Bowe said, "because they're not quiet little issues that we want to push away. I think we need to deal with them as an institution."

Bowe is a lawyer who has lived in St. Cloud since 1986. Since she began in December, five complaints have been filed. She has met with two dozen others who brought concerns to her.

Dick Andzenge
Criminal Justice Professor Dick Andzenge prefers to be an optimist.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Since she started her job, the president has also initiated a paid suspension for a professor under investigation. It was the first time this power had been invoked in recent memory. Bowe hopes to erase the notion that complaints often disappear, as some critics say, "into a black hole." Many say over the years, the university has withheld records they are legally entitled to see, citing instructions from the Attorney General's office.

An MPR request was able to obtain some personal documents complainants said they had previously been denied. But the documents did not reveal what actions were taken - or were not taken - as a result of their having been filed.

Bowe says the process needs to be as open as possible while still protecting privacy.

"As to the steps, it should be completely transparent. They should know where they are, where they're going and what's happened," Bowe said. "Otherwise you lose credibility."

Tracy Bowe
Special Investigator Tracy Flynn Bowe's position was created in December. She has begun five investigations since she started at St. Cloud State. "I try to encourage people to do as much with the informal process as they can, because that allows much more creativity in getting a complaint resolved," Bowe says.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Bowe's top priority is reviving the on-campus mediation program. Officials lament that almost nobody uses it. Many faculty say it doesn't work. They come in wanting a formal investigation and judgment. But Bowe says that leaves them with an all-or-nothing outcome. Racial and other insensitivity often does not add up to a technical violation of discrimination law. Bowe sees mediation as the key to more outcomes people can understand and be happy with.

"When people come in, they are very fearful, the anxiety is very high," Bowe said. "And so initially, the idea of sitting down face to face with the person who is alleged to have engaged in conduct that is hurtful to them is scary. And I think part of our job is making sure that the process equalizes that power balance."

Even those who have taken the school to task see other positive trends. Students now have required courses in diversity. Graduation now alternates between Saturday and Sunday, instead of falling every year on the Jewish sabbath. And the university now recognizes a variety of religious holidays. Affirmative Action Officer Laurel Allen says it's been a struggle since she first tried to set that process in motion five years ago.

Students sell tickets to Japan Night
Students sell tickets to a recent "Japan Night" event in the student center.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

"It was an easy, simple little memo that said, 'People, we are a state institution, let us not put forth just the Christian faith,'" Allen said. "It was so simple. I didn't realize just how angry that was going to get people. But I heard from a number of others, a number of the Jews, a number of the Muslims, who said, 'It's overdue.'"

And a number of top administrative posts are getting fresh faces, including the vice presidents of Student Affairs and Academic Affairs. President Saigo himself is new, having been on campus for 18 months, and says he is doing his best to forge a new path without giving in to the acrimony of the debate.

"People put me on both sides. 'You aren't doing enough. You're doing too damn much,'" Saigo said. "I guess I must be doing OK. I'm heading right in the middle and we're going to solve these issues. And we're going to do the best we can."

For better and for worse, these long-standing issues will be resolved in two arenas in the coming years. Saigo's campus, and the courts.