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Last fall, St. Catherine University invited 30 businesswomen and inspirational speakers to lead the breakout sessions at a popular annual leadership conference.

But the conference, which was billed as a networking and career-building event, never took place. The university canceled it because of what it called a lack of diversity among the invited speakers.

The decision, which caught many of the speakers by surprise, has cast the Catholic university in St. Paul in an uncomfortable national spotlight. Last week, the conservative website Campus Reform reported that St. Catherine had pulled the plug on the event because “most, if not all the scheduled speakers ended up being white.”

St. Catherine officials declined to be interviewed for this story. But this week, the university issued a statement defending its decision to call off the Leadership Imperative Conference, which had been scheduled for Jan. 19.

“We did not feel the list [of speakers] adequately represented the St. Kate’s community or fulfilled the objective of lifting up the voices of all women,” it said. “While this was a tough decision, we believe it was an important one.”

John Hinderaker, president of the Minneapolis-based Center of the American Experiment, a politically conservative think tank, called the decision appalling. “This is the kind of absurdity you get when you prioritize skin color over merit,” he said.

Back in November, the university actively promoted the one-day conference as “the event of the year for professional women in the Twin Cities.” It was designed, according to its website, for “both aspiring and seasoned leaders,” and promised a series of inspirational sessions — on finding purpose, igniting passion and inspiring excellence — by noteworthy speakers. “You won’t want to miss out,” it said. “Space is limited! Last year, the event sold out quickly.”

It also sent out congratulatory notes to the women selected as presenters. But in December, after the speakers were asked to send in photos and bios for the event’s website, the university reversed course.

Becky Roloff, St. Catherine’s president, sent a campuswide e-mail Dec. 8 announcing she was canceling the conference after concerns were raised by alumnae, faculty and staff.

“We did not set a goal to secure a diverse panel of presenters,” she wrote. “Because of this, the racial and ethnic diversity of women in leadership positions was not reflected in the conference …” She did not state what the racial breakdown was, but she expressed her “sincere apology for injuries caused.”

Joann Bangs, the associate provost, told presenters in a separate e-mail that the decision was “no reflection on the quality of your presentation,” but on the selection process itself.

The organizers, she wrote, had put out a blind call for presentations, and had chosen the speakers “solely based on their fit” with the conference themes. The end result “does not reflect the diverse St. Kate’s community,” she wrote. “While well intentioned, it is a case where a blind process has led to a racial and ethnic blind outcome.” The university says that 34 percent of its undergraduates are “multicultural” students.

Some of the scheduled speakers admit they were caught off-guard by the cancellation.

“I was disappointed that it was canceled because I was excited to be a part of it,” said Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito, a St. Paul author and publisher, who was planning to give a presentation on storytelling. “When I submit something to a conference as a speaker, I have the understanding that they’re going to choose me on what I’m going to present and the value of that to their audience. I’m not expecting that they’re going to choose me on the basis of the color of my skin.”

Jeanne Bailey, a former associate dean at St. Catherine who was also scheduled to speak at the conference, says she was “very surprised and disappointed” by the cancellation. “I’m still puzzled by it,” she said this week.

Some speakers shrugged off the decision. “I was a bit surprised because historically it’s been such a great event, but I was not overly shocked,” said Kristen Brown, a motivational speaker from Minneapolis who was to have given the keynote address. “Conferences are canceled all the time for various reasons and as a speaker I just have to roll with it.”

Karen Kodzik, a St. Paul career consultant who was scheduled as a presenter, had a similar reaction. “I don’t think it’s a question of are they right; they can do whatever they want,” she said. “If they want to take the program in another direction … it’s absolutely their prerogative to do so.”

Last year, the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis drew headlines for canceling a fall writers’ conference because of a shortage of nonwhite speakers. But the Foundation on Individual Rights in Education, which monitors campus free-speech issues, said it was unaware of a college or university canceling a conference for that reason.

“Event organizers are free to shape their events in the way they deem fit,” said attorney Ari Cohn, one of the group’s directors. “However, if diversity is the issue, the more proper solution would seem to be to add to the event rather than cancel it entirely, which prevents any voice from being heard.”

But Roloff, in her December e-mail, dismissed that option. “Our planning process was not structured for inclusive representation,” she said. “Trying to change it quickly when the reality arose can’t turn it into what it was not.”

Instead, she wrote that the university would revamp its planning process for future conferences. “We make mistakes,” she wrote. “It is important that we recognize and learn from them.”

Hinderaker, of the Center of the American Experiment, is skeptical. “It’s really almost comical that they’re forced to admit that they did this strictly on the basis of merit and they characterize this as a mistake,” he said. The losers, he notes, are the very people they set out to help.

“Instead of providing the benefit to the [participants] that they intended to provide, they’d rather do nothing apparently,” he said. “It’s really kind of a classic story of how everything gets sacrificed in the name of diversity.”

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384