Bisharo Iman hoped college in St. Cloud would be different than attending high school there — no more taunts of “Go back to your country” aimed at her Somali dress, no more being slammed into lockers.
“I did get away from it — for a while,” said Iman, a junior business major at St. Cloud State University.
That was before a frightening six-week stretch in November and December when vandals carved or scrawled more than a dozen swastikas and other racist images on campus walls, elevators and bathroom stalls.
The spate came as a setback to this central Minnesota university, which has spent more than $1 million, thousands of hours and untold energy in recent years trying to undo its reputation as hostile toward racial and ethnic minorities, an image so entrenched that some refer to the surrounding town as “White Cloud.”
“Do I groan and say, ‘Goodness, not again?’ Of course I do,” said Earl Potter, president of the school situated in a quiet, overwhelmingly white city of about 60,000 on the Mississippi River that has seen an influx of Somali immigrants. “But you have to look at our country, and how we still struggle with some of our more unfortunate legacies. These are complicated issues for everyone.”
As a new term starts, St. Cloud State has responded with a series of new initiatives, including an all-day unity rally, aimed at reassuring minority students that they are safe and easing the concerns of faculty, donors and potential students.
The first two swastikas appeared in mid-November, carved into the wall of a computer lab in the Student Cultural Center, a popular gathering place for minorities among the 17,000 students at the university, the state’s second-largest.
“The fact they did it here, you feel more targeted,” Iman said, reclining on a couch with friends in the bustling center.
About a dozen reports followed, including several more drawings of swastikas, a Ku Klux Klan hood and a burning cross. Some of the more disturbing allegations came from a minority student who said a group of young white men spit at her and another gave her a Nazi salute.
St. Cloud police are investigating, but Sgt. Jerry Edblad said there are no suspects and that such cases are tough to crack without direct information from witnesses.
Many of the later images turned up in dormitories, leading investigators to think they were the work of students. Investigators also believe some of the later vandalism was committed by copycats.
The school has plastered over the swastikas in the Student Cultural Center, but their effects linger.
“What I would hope is that people would connect the dots,” said Myrle Cooper, a retired St. Cloud State professor who is black. “This is hardly a rare occasion.”
In 2002, Cooper and another black professor sent letters to several dozen high schools and churches in the Twin Cities urging minority students not to attend St. Cloud State, warning of a “long and sordid record of racism.” He said he’d do the same today.
About the same time as Cooper and his colleague were writing their letters, St. Cloud State settled a federal class action lawsuit filed by current and former faculty members who alleged that school officials had discriminated against Jews and other minority groups for years. As part of the settlement, the school established a Jewish Studies and Resource Center, increased campus security, upped diversity training and reformed discrimination-complaint procedures.
Yet the problems persisted. An anonymous survey of faculty members contained anti-Semitic remarks. The university’s neighbors found anti-Semitic and racist fliers on their cars.
'A place that struggles with diversity'
The most common explanation as to why St. Cloud State seems to have had more racial trouble than other universities in historically liberal-minded Minnesota is summarized by Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, who came to campus after the 2002 settlement to lead the Jewish Studies program.
“This is central, rural Minnesota. When my classes start tomorrow, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, there will be people who walk in who’ve never met a Jew before,” Edelheit said.
“There is some reality to the reputation of St. Cloud as a place that struggles with diversity,” conceded Potter, the president.
Campus leaders speak of wanting to lead the way for the surrounding community, and minority enrollment has risen from 6.2 percent in fall 2006 to 6.8 percent in fall 2007.
It remains a circular problem, however. That student body studies at the feet of many faculty members, including Edelheit, who commute 75 miles from the Twin Cities, a choice some of the teachers make because of St. Cloud’s image.
“I live in the Cities because I need a larger Jewish community,” Edelheit said. “I live in the Cities because I can’t imagine living in a community that cannot support its own synagogue.”