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Protests fail to retain Ojibwe professor

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ST. CLOUD, Minn. - Several weeks after campus protests began, officials at St. Cloud State University in central Minnesota stand firm on the decision to terminate employment of an Ojibwe professor.

Dr. Nancy Harles, assistant director of the university's American Indian Center, has been under contract with the university for more than five years. She said she was given no explanation for the administration's decision not to renew her contract, which is up at the end of June.

SCSU officials say the Government Data Practices Act prohibits them from commenting on Harles' termination.

Harles said in the absence of an official explanation, she has concluded that "racism, sexism, and ageism" are the causes of her termination. One of only 102 Native females nationwide who hold doctorates, Harles said she had been heavily recruited by dozens of educational institutions since earning her doctor of philosophy degree in1994.

Allegations of discrimination have dogged the university for the two decades. Complaints of unequal pay for woman, and unequal treatment of minority students and faculty surfaced regularly.

Harles said she learned early in her career of SCSU's reputation for ill treatment of woman and minorities. "When I told a colleague I'd decided to take the job here, she asked me, 'Why do you want to live in White Cloud?'"

Harles chose St. Cloud, she said, for its proximity to her husband who owns and operates a farm in North Dakota.

In response to allegations of racism, university officials said publicly they are committed to hiring and retaining minority faculty.

Members of SCSU's Color Caucus, a group of minority students and faculty, say the university isn't holding to its commitment.

A May 4 attempt to get answers from interim president Suzanne Williams, resulted in arrests of nine students and four professors by St. Cloud police officer in full riot gear.

"We entered President Williams' office to demand accountability for the firing of Dr. Harles," student Rob Callahan said. He said the group was ordered by campus security to leave the office after Williams spoke to them, saying "there is nothing I can do."

They stayed, Callahan said, because "many of us feared arrest upon leaving the building."

Several hours later riot police stormed the building with weapons drawn, Callahan said. "During the arrests some students were pushed around and left with bruises.,"

The group, which included Harles, was taken to Stearns County jail, charged with trespass and released the following morning.

Protesters say the police overreacted to a peaceful show of civil disobedience.

The next day, as hundreds of citizens amassed for a rally on the grounds of a St. Cloud's Atwood shopping mall in support of Dr. Harles, President Williams issued a statement in support of the police action.

"The protesters were given numerous opportunities to continue their sit-in outdoors, but chose not to move. After numerous requests to vacate, the protesters were peacefully escorted out of the building by St. Cloud police. SCSU continues its efforts to achieve diversity and social justice on campus. SCSU also supports everyone's right to express their own opinions in a manner in keeping with the university's 1st Amendment expressions protocol, which precludes sit-ins inside buildings after-hours."

Harles addressed the mall crowd, saying the issue was not her contract, but gaining respect for non-white faculty members at SCSU.

"We need to hold St. Cloud State accountable, not just for the loss of one job, but how they treat people of color."

Harles said she was never given a chance to succeed at SCSU. "Every time I'd get settled into a job, they'd move me into another program without my consent. Other minority faculty members have said the same thing. We aren't allowed to stay in one place long enough to make an impact. It's almost like we're being set-up to fail. They just don't want Indian people to succeed, and god forbid they should make any money," she said.

"I can't tell you how distressed I am to see that we (minority faculty members) are so few here, and yet there's no effort to keep us here," said Jeanne Lacourte, a Menominee minority studies professor.

Shawn Teal, vice president for University Advancement, said protesters failed to examine the university's efforts to diversify the campus, which he called "the most extensive and successful in the state." Teal noted that 19 percent of new hires in 1999 were non-white.

There are 56 American Indian students enrolled at SCSU.

Harles says racism is so bad in St. Cloud many of them won't be seen at the Native American Student Center for fear of being identified as Indian.

"I help all students of every color who come here for support," she said. "The only thing that keeps me going are the students, because they're the ones who can make the world a better place."

Earlier this year the student body nominated Harles for SCSU's teacher of the year award.

With school out of session for the summer, Harles has lost much of her support group, and seems resigned to looking for a new job. She said the university has indicated willingness to extend her contract two months.

"That would just be two more months of agony," said the 61-year-old professor, who said she fears her age may make it difficult to get hired elsewhere.