The women of University of Minnesota Duluth speak: Kari Olson’s story

Editor’s note: A colleague of mine recently read the essay of the Undergraduate First Place Winner of the AWM/MfA 2022 Student Essay Contest, which describes the upward trajectory of Tracy Bibelnieks’ mathematical career, but upon further research learned of her resignation in April 2021 and Kristine Snyder’s earlier in 2018, both at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). This story has been reported upon in detail here and here last year, but to our knowledge has barely registered in the mathematical world, even a year later. In giving voice here to the women of UMD, we hope that this serves as a warning and a rebuke to the mathematical community, for our complicity and ignorance. This is Part 2; read Part 1.

I started my undergrad at the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2017. I loved learning (still do), and got involved in everything I could during my time at UMD. Music, research, teaching, advocacy work, on-campus jobs…you name it, I did it. In the spring of 2018, I took Calculus II with Dr. Tracy Bibelnieks. She was one of the very few female professors I had, and she was excellent. Her lectures included worksheets/active learning opportunities, and she was always happy to answer my seemingly never-ending questions during office hours. I did well in Calc II and started my junior year at full speed. I was focused on research, classes, and teaching — mostly in the department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Meanwhile, UMD’s EOAA was investigating the department of Mathematics and Statistics, largely because of complaints brought forward by women faculty, staff, and students. In 2019, a summary of the findings was released to the math department. In March of 2020, the findings were released publicly. You can read them here. They went mostly unnoticed by the larger university community. 

I didn’t know about the findings until Dr. Bibelnieks resigned in March of 2021. I was in her data analytics course at the time. It was my favorite class, and Dr. Bibelnieks designed the curriculum herself. Our teams learned to code and analyze/visualize data by working to generate insights with real data.

I was extremely upset when I learned Dr. Bibelnieks resigned. I was furious when I learned why. 

Despite the EOAA’s findings and further reports of harm, sexism, and discrimination from women in the math department, as of spring 2021, Dr. Bibelnieks (and other women in the department) still found the environment was “hostile and offensive to a reasonable woman.” Dr. Bibelnieks and other women continually reported that they were harmed — professionally and personally, by this environment. Like any university, students are UMD’s most important stakeholders. I knew that we would not tolerate the continued harm to women in our math department, so I decided to organize and mobilize students’ voices. I formed an organization titled Students for Equity and Accountability in STEM (SEA STEM). Over 100 UMD students got involved in our movement — during the phase of the COVID-19 pandemic when very few classes were held in person. We hung posters all over UMD and Duluth, held organizing meetings, drafted demands for administration, and had countless meetings with faculty/administration groups. The student association and student body president got involved and passed resolutions echoing our demands. Local media picked up the story almost immediately. Dr. Bibelnieks, Dr. Snyder, and I were interviewed by all of the local media outlets. You can read our demands here

Founding SEA STEM was an amazing and awful experience. For months, SEA STEM was the last thing I thought of before I fell asleep and the first thing I thought of when I woke up. I poured hundreds of hours into this organization. Students, staff, and faculty members reached out to me asking for help and advice. Many of them asked for advice about how to handle gut-wrenching, truly awful, dangerous situations, many of which stemmed from sexism, homophobia, racism, and other forms of hatred and discrimination. Many more reached out solely because they knew I would listen and believe their stories. The fact that people so desperately reached out to me — an undergraduate student with no official title or power — was very telling. Untenured female professors were especially hesitant to speak up. Suddenly, everybody knew how UMD handled the situation in the math department. It made them both angry and afraid. 

All of the media interviews featuring SEA STEM, Dr. Bibelnieks, and Dr. Snyder happened over the course of one week. By the time the last news outlet called me, I felt completely overwhelmed. I was angry with myself for allowing my emotions to weigh so heavily. I wasn’t naive about the toxic effects of the patriarchy. I’d experienced plenty of sexism myself, at UMD and elsewhere. I knew what I was getting into when I started SEA STEM. I had an incredible support system and experienced seasons of life which were much more personally difficult. Why was I having such a hard time? 

Later that week, a postdoc working at UMD — a friend whom I looked up to and often turned to for advice — told me that I “probably had the most power now”, as an undergraduate student leader, than I ever would for the rest of my career.

Students speaking out against their university does not bode well for enrollment dollars. UMD didn’t care about the brilliant, successful, good, and kind women faculty members who were role models for me. They cared about their reputation and bottom line. Of course, I knew this. But I hadn’t considered the implications for my own future. Dr. Bibelnieks and other female faculty members were successful women in STEM — women I hoped to be like one day. Yet I, an undergraduate student (who really didn’t know what she was doing!) was advocating on their behalf. Dr. Bibelnieks and Dr. Snyder are incredibly resilient women, yet their experiences at UMD were so terrible that their lives were profoundly harmed. At that moment, I realized my future was not as bright as I’d previously believed.

UMD’s administration did not meet a single one of SEA STEM’s demands. I graduated and moved back to my hometown. A few months later, the head of the math department stepped down. I had a B.S. in biochemistry and a B.A. in chemistry from UMD and honestly didn’t want them. I knew that I was tremendously privileged to have obtained my degrees, but they felt tainted. My worry deepened about the implications of my activism on my career. I wanted to pursue medicine, but the thought of admissions committees digging into my record of holding UMD’s administration accountable made me tentative to spend the thousands of dollars required to even apply. I was so angered and disappointed by the way UMD handled the situation in the math department. Of course, some universities handle situations such as these even more poorly than UMD. But still, other universities handle them better. My parents were public school teachers, and I’m a believer in public education at all levels. I expected more from a school receiving so much state and federal funding. Thinking of my experience at UMD made me incredibly anxious. I was very unsure about what to do next, so I decided to stick with my original post-grad plan and get my Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certificate. 

The summer after graduation, I focused on what made me happy. I reconnected with parts of my life that were put on hold during undergrad. I spent lots of time on the farm I grew up on, and even more time with my friends. I got to live with my little sister again. Being around her helped remind me that I was still only 22 years old, with a full future ahead. Dr. Bibelnieks, despite grappling with the effects of UMD’s toxic culture on her own career and personal life, helped me navigate life post UMD. I feel truly lucky to call her my friend. I was slowly coming around to the idea of using my degrees to re-enter the world of higher education. 

Now, I work as an EMT on the Mayo Clinic ambulance service in Duluth. I love caring for my patients and neighbors, so I’m applying to medical school this month. Though my fears and doubts stemming from my undergraduate experience are still present — I’m excited to continue my education. University policies and procedures surrounding discrimination, reporting, and protection of minorities are of utmost importance to me. If I’m admitted to medical school(s), I’ll certainly be searching for any clues I can find about how these issues are really handled. Of course, I don’t expect perfection — but I do expect that EOAA findings aren’t hidden and ignored. 

Occasionally, I’m the EMT in charge of responding to a 911 call at UMD’s campus. It feels much easier to be there while wearing my uniform and caring for my patient. When I see UMD’s students and staff, I’m reminded of why I founded SEA STEM: there are so many good people at UMD. They deserve a place to learn, work, and live that is safe for all. I hope that by sharing my story and elevating Dr. Bibelnieks’ and Dr. Snyder’s stories, we can help prevent others from experiencing harm at UMD. 

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