Confronting Light and Dark

How St. Olaf decided to scrub the name of a revered late professor recently accused of sexual misconduct from his namesake building.

March 15, 2017
 
Reidar Dittmann

Sometimes the darkest and most brilliant aspects of a college's history are embodied in the same person, as St. Olaf College recently found out. The institution said this month that a campus arts building will no longer bear the name of a late professor of art and Norwegian who was a Nazi-era resistance fighter, following an investigation into “credible” allegations of his repeated sexual misconduct.

The professor’s family has criticized the decision, but St. Olaf’s faculty seems to back it.

“We live in a world in which two things that just don’t make any sense together can both be true at the same time,” David R. Anderson, St. Olaf’s president, said in an interview. “It’s confounding and disconcerting, and nevertheless you have to do the best you can to find a way forward.”

Revered Professor

Reidar Dittmann, who died in 2010, looms large in campus mythology. Born to Lutheran parents in Norway in 1922, Dittmann sympathized with Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and was first arrested by occupying German forces for organizing the singing of anti-Nazi songs.

After a brief imprisonment, he joined the Norwegian resistance and helped sabotage a shipyard. His activities landed him a life sentence, and he became a political prisoner. Eventually, he spent 30 months in captivity in the concentration camp at Buchenwald.

“Above the gateway, emblazoned in brass letters, was the motto of the camp, and it said, ‘Right or wrong, my country,’” Dittmann said in a 1997 interview with Minnesota Public Radio.

Released in 1945, Dittmann emigrated to the U.S. and joined the St. Olaf faculty two years later. He co-founded the college’s international studies program and led students on annual tours abroad. He became the college’s first director of international studies and received the St. Olav's Medal from the Norwegian king in 1977 -- no small nod at a college founded by Norwegian immigrants. Dittmann also was a frequent lecturer on the Holocaust and took part in opening ceremonies for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

After his retirement, in 2002, the college named the building that houses its art, art history and dance programs after Dittmann.

Allegations Surface

Cut to last year, when St. Olaf -- like many other institutions -- initiated a review of its politics and procedures surrounding sexual misconduct. The process involved creating an independent working group on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination in education, and gathering input from students, faculty and staff.

Several alumni came forward with reports of sexual misconduct involving faculty and staff members from up to decades ago. Some said they now felt comfortable sharing their experiences “after observing a change in St. Olaf’s culture,” according to information from the college.

An unspecified number of those reports centered on Dittmann. St. Olaf has released no detailed information about the nature of the claims against him, but Anderson said the accusers described behavior that “was wrong then and wrong now. This is not a question of 21st-century political correctness.”

The college investigated the claims, including through interviews with the alleged victims, and found what Anderson, the college's president, called “highly credible evidence” against Dittmann.

Carl Crosby Lehmann, general counsel for the college, was involved in the process. He declined in an interview to elaborate on the claims against Dittmann, citing promises of privacy to the alleged victims. But, in general, in any investigation, he said, it’s “significant” when multiple allegations from “individuals who don’t appear to have known each other come forward, and they’re saying, ‘I didn’t realize I wasn’t the only one.’”

Questioning the College

Last week, St. Olaf told people on campus and alumni about its decision to remove Dittmann's name from the building. Members of his family criticized the college, saying in a statement that they are “shocked and dismayed by the turn of events that has resulted in stripping his name from the Art and Dance Center at St. Olaf College. The allegations of sexual misconduct from decades ago deeply trouble his family, many members of whom proudly attended the college and grew up with it as an integral part of our lives. We abhor sexual misconduct without exception, but we are also devastated by the impossibility of due process for the person we knew and loved.”

There are “many other aspects of this case that should be disturbing to anyone who cares about civil liberties: the recklessness on the part of the college in allowing its alumni database to be used to distribute anonymous allegations and to solicit more allegations from a targeted group of alumnae; the college's secrecy about the allegations and the process used to indict our father posthumously; the haste with which the college reached its conclusion; and finally, the public humiliation our family is experiencing as a result of the college's communications of their actions,” the statement reads. “While we understand that the college needs to find a path forward, we are deeply saddened at this outcome, which provides no closure for us.”

Asked about due process for Dittmann, Crosby said that “when we receive allegations, we don’t take them at face value. We can’t ignore them, either, based on the fact that the accused person is not available to respond.”

Anderson said alumni have come forward with reports about late staff and faculty members beyond Dittmann, but his case has become public because of his significance on campus.

“It would be impossible to keep that name on the building” out of respect for victims, he said. “It was the right thing to do.”

Confronting the Past

Facing increased pressure to confront the darker parts of their legacies in recent years, institutions have responded in different ways.

Yale University, for example, last month announced that it would remove the name of John C. Calhoun, an alumnus who was the seventh U.S. vice president and an outspoken proponent of slavery, from a residential college (the decision reversed an earlier one to retain Calhoun’s name). Clemson University, meanwhile, decided to retain the name of a campus building honoring Benjamin Tillman, a notoriously racist politician who represented South Carolina through the early 20th century.

“Every great institution is built by imperfect craftsmen,” Clemson’s Board of Trustees said in a 2015 statement about their decision. “Stone by stone they add to the foundation so that over many, many generations, we get a variety of stones. And so it is with Clemson. Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at. But they are ours, and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so.”

Some academics have argued against removing monuments that recall slavery or civil rights violations, saying it could amount to erasure instead of a teaching opportunity. Of course, at St. Olaf, the allegations are about the conduct of a professor against former students of the college.

Anderson said St. Olaf isn’t attempting to erase Dittmann, and that it “couldn’t, even if you wanted to, because of the remarkable 46 years of service he contributed to this college.” He underscored that that history of service doesn't “make sense” in light of the allegations against Dittmann, but said that “colleges and universities are human organizations made up of humans, and so they’re going exhibit the best and worst of us. Our greatest and weakest strengths are mirror sides of each other.”

In any case, Anderson said, “we are not seeking public approval and congratulations for being ‘such good people.’ It’s a sad day for the college that this actually needed to talked about, but we could not have taken the action that needed to be taken without public awareness of it.”

Shock, Sadness, Support

Anderson said he’s tracking the many responses he’s received on the matter from faculty, alumni and staff. There’s lots of shock, sadness, support and “thankfulness that the college did take this step,” he said, in that it’s “doubling down” on its values.

Kari Lie Dorer, chair of Norwegian studies at St. Olaf, used some of those words to describe the general reaction of the faculty, which was not involved in the decision; professors were briefed on the news a few hours before it went public. Though few professors still teaching knew Dittmann, she said, the faculty response was “first shocked and, second, thankful for how our administration dealt with the allegations from start to finish. … I do believe that our faculty trusts our administration in this decision.”

Nevertheless, Dorer said, Dittmann remains an “important part of my department's history,” and he's still remembered for his contributions to teaching and study abroad.

Anna Kuxhausen, chair of Russian and director of women’s and gender studies, congratulated Anderson on his leadership -- especially because the facts of the case will not be made public. That's consistent with Title IX procedures, she said, but surely problematic for some observers.

“The decision to rename this building is appropriate and courageous; it sends a strong message to survivors of sexual misconduct at St. Olaf that the college will not protect known perpetrators -- or their legacies,” Kuxhausen said via email. “Given [Anderson’s] statement, we can conclude that the allegations against Dittmann were substantiated to a degree that warranted this dramatic action.”

Asked what advice he might have for other institutions weighing aspects of their histories, light and dark, Anderson said, “You have to start by going back to the mission and stated values, and you have to behave according to them. That’s where the sadness and pain might come in. But, you know, we’re 142 years old, and I don’t think you’ll find many institutions that are 142 that don’t have complicated histories.”

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