At St. Olaf, 'harassment' and a suspension expose the state of campus politics

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Cosimo Pori fell in love with St. Olaf's campus and its people, at first, but won't be getting a degree from the school. Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

After one day at St. Olaf College, Cosimo Pori was enchanted.

The high schooler, who grew up in Albuquerque, was told by a friend who’d visited St. Olaf that the school might be a good fit.

The friend was right. St. Olaf’s campus in Northfield was beautiful, and Pori was impressed with the performing arts program. People seemed so open, so friendly.

“‘Minnesota Nice’ and the Midwestern hospitality... at first, I was kind of under its spell.”

Pori—who is gender non-binary and uses “they/their/them” pronouns—became active in dance, an LGBTQ group, and student government.

This experience was similar in many ways to that of Griffin Edwards, an Ole from southern California, who liked the school’s emphasis on music and its “quirky” side. Edwards, who describes his politics as “center-right, pragmatic libertarian,” knew he’d be outnumbered at St. Olaf, but appreciated the school’s spirit of free speech.

Yet the 2016 elections were a flashpoint for Edwards, who says conservative students were castigated as villains in a “hostile atmosphere.” Pori also saw hostility after November 8, awakening to a new president who spoke a “violent, dangerous” language about blacks, Muslims, immigrants, and queers.

Those views collided last March, when Edwards penned an op-ed piece for the Manitou Messenger. He opposed a student group’s speaking invitation to Angela Davis, a leftist activist and academic whose presence only upheld St. Olaf’s “dominant campus narrative,” he wrote.

Where were the speakers of other stripes? “The American political sphere has Democrats, Republicans, communists, libertarians, Nazis, evangelicals, Greens and even monarchists,” he wrote. Cosimo Pori recalls reading Edwards’ op-ed, but still hasn’t gotten past that one word:

Nazis?

“I was shocked a fellow student would just nonchalantly mention the Nazi Party in a list of people included in the American political sphere,” Pori says.

A few days later, the St. Olaf admissions office, where Edwards worked, posted an Instagram photo that included Edwards. Pori wrote a comment asking if the school knew of Edwards’ writing. The comment was deleted. Pori wrote again, saying St. Olaf was advertising itself to prospective students with the image of a “Nazi sympathizer.” This was also deleted.

These “disparaging comments” got Pori kicked out of student government. Edwards continued to complain that Pori was calling him a “Nazi sympathizer” online.

A month later, they happened upon each other in a school building. Edwards was escorting a guest up the stairs. Pori ascended ahead of them, going slower and slower, blocking their way to the point they were almost not moving. Edwards and his guest finally found space to get past.

St. Olaf ultimately suspended Pori for the online comments, the stairs slow-down, and two other incidents. In an earlier episode, Pori had tried to shut down a Red Cross Blood Drive. (The Red Cross turns away donors who admit homosexual sex, a holdover from an AIDS-crazed era.) There was also a blocked doorway in the Buntrock Commons during a protest over racial inequalities. The “one common thread,” a school administrator wrote, was that Pori had used “inappropriate tactics” to advocate their beliefs.

Pori says discussions with their father, a criminal attorney, reminded Pori that a 6-foot-2 individual could be perceived as threatening, even without intent. But in an eloquent letter back to school administrators, Pori defended the feud with Edwards.

“I would not want to harm [Edwards],” Pori wrote, “because then I would be no better than the vile belief system which I so passionately condemn.”

The appeal fell short. Pori was suspended until September 2018, at which date Pori can reapply.

Cosimo Pori and Griffin Edwards are impressive. They’re mature, thoughtful, reasoned, well-spoken, unfailingly polite. They thank you for your patience, apologize for carrying on. They bounce between moments of cocksure stubbornness—“I don’t do regrets,” says Pori; Edwards argues that “monarchists” could be “just as bad” as Nazis—and insightful self-perception. They sound like promising young people, the kind St. Olaf’s would be happy to have as alumni.

Only one of them will be. Edwards won’t say what he’s been up to since graduation, though he’s “happy to join the real world, as much as I loved St. Olaf.” Pori doesn’t plan to return, and is instead applying to schools on the East Coast with hopes of finishing college next year.

Edwards thinks his alma mater was “professional and timely” in resolving a tense situation, and thinks the school recognizes the value of diverse opinions. “Iron sharpens iron,” he says.

Pori says the spectrum of tolerable rhetoric ends this side of fascism, and St. Olaf’s “blind commitment to free speech” made some students feel unsafe.

Despite all this, the pair have never spoken, though both claim they wish they had.

They also say they learned a lot from their collision—about how big institutions work, about standing up for your principles, about living by your word in a digital age. These lessons will be invaluable. It’s just a shame they didn’t learn more about each other.

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