The young people Jael Kerandi saw at the protest may one day be University of Minnesota students. They deserve better than what I had, she thought.It was one day after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck, killing him. The intersection where that happened was mere miles from the campus that Kerandi, the student-body president, called home. Something had to change, and she had a platform to make a demand.Kerandi returned home to her apartment. Soon after, she sent a letter to the university administration demanding that it halt any partnerships with the Minneapolis Police Department. Respond in 24 hours, she wrote, and signed the letter, “Jael Kerandi, A black woman. The Undergraduate Student Body President.”Students make demands of their colleges all the time and sometimes don’t hear a peep in response. This was different. The day after Kerandi’s demand landed in the hands of administrators, campus leaders took action.Behind the scenes, the process was far less straightforward. Records obtained by The Chronicle show administrators unsure of how exactly to respond and what words to use. Should the university president, Joan T.A. Gabel, criticize the police department, or just the individual officers? Were campus police leaders on board? What would this do to the campus’s relationship with the city?Colleges from coast to coast may soon be asking themselves similar questions. Floyd’s killing inspired student activism nationwide, and as the fall semester begins, organizing has moved onto colleges’ grounds. How Minnesota campus leaders approached Kerandi’s demand may provide a preview for other campuses.In late May, all eyes were on Minneapolis. Protests raged. Memorials sprang up. The city was becoming ground zero for a major civil-rights moment — and that meant the University of Minnesota would be pulled in, too. As Kerandi said, it was “happening right in our backyard.”It was up to the president to answer.Transformative change rarely happens in 24 hours on a college campus. Kerandi demanded action, and administrators needed to determine what they could — or would — do in response.On Wednesday morning, Matt Kramer, vice president for university relations, took a go at drafting Gabel’s response. “I have instructed Chief Matt Clark to do x, y, z (need to check with the Chief on what works for us),” Kramer wrote.He forcefully condemned the agency.“I hold the Minneapolis Police Department responsible and demand accountability and justice for George Floyd,” Kramer’s draft read. “That the culture and actions of the MPD do not reflect our values is not under question. They do not. Their actions are abhorrent, and we insist that the Mayor and City Council redress the stain that their police department has inflicted on our region.”Kramer’s draft did not include language of solidarity with students. “It would come across (and is) inauthentic,” he wrote to Gabel. Even though Kerandi and Gabel had a good relationship, the president’s response would be read far more widely than by just the student leader. Kramer wanted to avoid presupposing a connection with the reader for that reason.Gabel, the president, disagreed. “I would frame this very differently,” she replied.Her proposed changes focused the letter on collaborative action. “I join you in holding the Minneapolis Police Department responsible and demand accountability and justice for George Floyd. You asked that we immediately cease any cooperation with the MPD, at any level, in the interest of safety. I’d like to address your demand and ask that we consult on its implementation.”She added a few examples of ways MPD and the university collaborate to describe why an immediate stop to joint work was impossible. Take investigations, or bomb squads. She widened the lens of possible actions for the police chief, asking him to do “x, y, z” immediately and “abc over time.” And she changed the last sentence, easing criticism of the police department and pressure on the city.Gone was Kramer’s language about MPD’s culture, and the language about the police department inflicting a “stain” on the region.
Glen Stubbe, APJoan Gabel greets members of the Board of Regents in December 2018, after the board unanimously voted to hire her as the university’s first female president.
Gabel was a new president at Minnesota, but this was not her first time grappling with racial unrest that affects campus groups. She was dean of the business school at the University of Missouri when Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer, and she was provost at the University of South Carolina shortly after Dylann Roof murdered nine Black people in their place of worship in Charleston. That experience, she told The Chronicle, showed her how students might be affected.Still, she knew there needed to be balance. The university has relationships with the mayors and police departments in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Officers patrolled neighborhoods in which students and faculty members live.Kerandi demanded a total break between university and city police. While it was “never an option” to remove policing entirely from off-campus neighborhoods, Gabel said it was the university’s intention to “vote with our wallet.” “There’s no need to reward an organization that allowed or perpetuated a set of circumstances that resulted in George Floyd’s murder,” she told The Chronicle.The solution ultimately put forward by campus leadership didn’t cut ties with the department. Instead, administrators pledged to use officers from alternative law-enforcement agencies, not MPD, for support during large events. Such a decision may have financial consequences — limiting the pool of available contract officers would increase demand — but Kramer wrote in an email explaining the decision that the steps “are the right thing to do.”Gabel forwarded Kramer’s latest draft to her senior assistant and to Brian Curtis, the president of an outside communications consulting firm called Paradigm Four. Curtis’s main worry? “I do think you need to separate MPD from the MPD officers involved,” he wrote back, shortly after noon. Curtis, who declined to comment for this story, had edited several sentences to do exactly that.The draft initially referenced “holding the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) responsible.” By the time Curtis and a senior assistant of Gabel’s were through with it, there was no longer any mention of who would be held accountable: “I join you,” the message read, “in demanding accountability and justice for George Floyd.”Gabel told The Chronicle that she believed in the message, and she believed in the action, but the campus was going out on a limb. She felt uncomfortable. Gabel said she didn’t think it was the university’s responsibility to condemn an institution — it was her job to act when there was “unacceptable” behavior. Her discomfort wouldn’t stop the university’s action.“It isn’t the role of the university to condemn, judge — that would come on its own through the appropriate mechanism,” she told The Chronicle. “But we do have values, and we’re going to act on those.”Crafting this message to Kerandi was one challenge. But Gabel felt she also needed to say something to the campus at large.Kramer approached Curtis, the head of the outside PR company, again. “Hot one for you and need immediate help,” Kramer wrote in an email to Curtis. He wanted Curtis’s thoughts on a draft of an early message to the campus as a whole.“Can we get your take on this,” he wrote. “It is very strong, but we want it to be strong. And we know it will create some backlash.”When Kramer writes, he intentionally shoots for the extremes. A speech praising an employee’s service includes superlatives; he said he always expects edits to pare back his language. It’s easier to do that, he said, than to write a bland statement and inject intensity later on. His draft on Wednesday concluded with two paragraphs that lodged sharp criticism against the department.“We have values and we will honor them. I will not use University resources to subsidize any law enforcement agency who so visibly has not lived up to their motto “To Protect with Courage. To Serve with Compassion.” We will only collaborate with the MPD on joint patrols and investigations that directly support the safety of students or that allow us to investigate and apprehend those that put our students at risk,” the draft read. “Someday we may be able to collaborate further with the MPD but today is not that day. That day won’t come until we see visible, measurable, and accountable change and we join the call for that change.”Curtis responded saying he believed the tone was right — but that the letter as it stood condemned the entire department, not the officers involved. It worried him.Kramer responded: “I share the concern, but this has been an issue now in the department for several years,” he wrote. “The culture is not likely to change until they make some wholesale leadership changes.”He approached Michael Berthelsen, the vice president for university services, for his approval of both letters: the response to student demands and the letter to campus.Berthelsen, who declined to comment through a spokesman, immediately raised questions. What is the end date? What happens to officers hired directly for events? And what about the broader relationship with the city?By 5:45 p.m., Kramer’s fiery paragraphs had been cut. There was no explicit call for change from MPD. Gabel would express sadness and broad demands for justice. “We must act when our neighbors are harmed and in pain.”The drafts were coming together. But a major question remained — who Gabel should tell before circulating these letters.Gabel told The Chronicle she personally reached out to the mayor, Jacob L. Frey. Staff in government affairs tried to connect with city council members, she said. She told The Chronicle she did not know if anyone contacted the police chief. (A representative for the police department told The Chronicle he was unaware of a meeting between the chief and the university.)In the midst of the hubbub of protest, the people they did try to reach did not return their calls, Gabel said. It was a point of concern, she said, but not a reason to delay the release.She found no need to wait for permission. The 24-hour deadline was approaching.
Jack Rodgers, Minnesota DailyJael Kerandi, student-body president at the University of Minnesota, speaks to demonstrators on May 29 to protest the Minneapolis Police Department and the killing of George Floyd.
Kerandi, the student president, felt Gabel was responsive to student needs. She worried, though, about the other senior leaders. What would the board think?The days after Floyd’s killing were challenging. Living in a pandemic meant taking things day by day. These days, after Floyd’s death, it felt more like taking this hour by hour. Her demand aside, she was working through her emotions.Kerandi didn’t want to let her community down. She knew the decision was out of her hands, but she still hoped she’d done enough. “We’re not just fighting for civil rights and its objectives,” she told The Chronicle. “We’re fighting for our mere existence.”Later Wednesday, though, she had to shift gears — one of her virtual classes, one on leadership, was meeting. She logged on.The two letters published, and feedback to Gabel’s office was flying in. Erick Garcia Luna, director of community and local government relations, asked Kramer on Wednesday night if Gabel had told the mayor, Frey, or two city council members about the letters.“Seems like our news is pretty pedestrian given larger issues at present,” Kramer wrote back. He later told The Chronicle that while the campus has powerful relationships with its community, the message was directed to internal groups, which lessened the need to contact outside parties.Some in the city didn’t feel the same way. Garcia Luna, who declined to comment through a spokesman, relayed several messages to Kramer.“I know that she didn’t talk to the city Council president but I’m hoping she spoke with the mayor, or someone did! Please keep me posted as soon as she has made those calls. I expect some council members will not be happy,” wrote Lisa Goodman, a city council member, in a message to Garcia Luna, which he forwarded via email. (Goodman later told The Chronicle that she did not recall writing that and declined to comment further.)Kerandi’s phone had started to ping, too. The first message was enthusiastic: “JAEL JAEL JAEL.”More soon followed. She looked and saw the letter, published to campus, and turned off her camera, writing a quick explanation to her professor who was teaching the class.In Gabel’s final email, of course, Kerandi didn’t see the revisions, the original language, the blowback from local leaders. She did see action. The university would eliminate certain contracts with Minneapolis Police Department individuals for events like games and certain specialty services, like K-9 work.It wasn’t what she had asked for — it wasn’t a full break. But it was still a victory.She burst into tears.