A Minnesota regent questions whether one of the system’s campuses is too diverse

A University of Minnesota regent is drawing fire after asking at a public meeting whether one of the system’s campuses is “too diverse.”

Board Vice Chairman Steven A. Sviggum asked a question about the Morris campus during a board committee meeting last week.

“I’ve gotten a couple of letters, actually two, from friends whose kids aren’t going to go to Morris because it’s too diverse a campus. They just didn’t feel comfortable there,” Sviggum said. too diverse for a student to participate in?”

The comment came amid debate over declining enrollment at the Morris campus, which is about two and a half hours from the system’s flagship Twin Cities campus. Morris enrolled 1,024 students this fall, down 14 percent from a year ago. The number also represents a 44 percent drop in enrollment from 2011-2012, according to the system. (While enrollment at the Twin Cities campus has been steady over the past decade, the system’s other regional comprehensive campuses in Crookston and Duluth have seen declines, though none as steep as Morris’s.)

Meanwhile, Sviggum spoke Chroniclethe percentage of underrepresented students at Morris has increased by about 40 percent.

While the percentage of American Indian, Asian, black, and Hispanic students increased during this period, their actual numbers fell—just not as much as white students. In other words, the percentage of white students among Morris’ undergraduate population dropped from about two-thirds in fall 2012 to just over half in 2022. At the same time, the proportion of non-white students increased due to a larger overall decline. number of employees.

Sviggum said “I don’t make the connection” between declining enrollment and increased diversity. “I was just asking the question,” he said, adding, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Any assessment of the potential relationship between diversity and enrollment must be balanced against an assessment of tuition costs at Morris and other nearby campuses, he said. “Everything has to be in balance.”

While he doesn’t claim that there is a correlation, Sviggum said, “We have to at least ask that question. I don’t think there is any program or policy, politically correct or not, that is over-questioned in the public sphere.

Morris Campus Acting Chancellor Janet Schrunk Ericksen responded to Sviggum at the meeting, saying she recently met with members of the campus’ Black Student Union. “I think they would be shocked if anyone thought our campus was too diverse,” he said. “They certainly feel isolated at times where they are. So the answer from that perspective is no. Complaints that Morris’s diversity is causing discomfort on campus “would surprise me,” he added.

“I could show you the letters,” Sviggum told Ericksen. (asked Chronicle If he could share the letters, Sviggum said they were sent over a year ago and he no longer has them. If he did, he would not share them to maintain confidentiality.)

“Our diversity is our strength”

A spokesman for Morris said Ericksen was out of the office and unavailable for comment.

Board Chairman Kendall J. Powell said in a statement that Ericksen’s comments during the meeting “resonate strongly with me.”

“Our diversity is a strength, it creates opportunities and opens the door to many others who have historically been excluded from the economic and other benefits of higher education,” Powell wrote. “This board has been a strong supporter of this administration’s multifaceted efforts, whether related to employment or student enrollment.”

Also, co-regent Darrin M. Rosha challenged Sviggum’s remarks during the meeting. “I would be quite surprised if a student had a legitimate concern about feeling out of place somehow,” Rosha said, describing Morris as a “heavily white community.” (Morris City is 86.8 percent white, according to the U.S. Census.) “But even if they do,” Rosha continued, “I really can’t think of a better experience than being in a very diverse community to realize that it shouldn’t matter. and they should feel welcome.

Morris Campus Student Association President Dylan Young told KSTP that minority student groups he had spoken with were outraged by Sviggum’s remarks. “My initial reaction is to ask, what does ‘too diverse’ mean? What percentage of the student body do we get to before we decide it’s too diverse?” he told the station.

A member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Young wrote in a letter to Sviggum that his involvement with the Native American community on campus has been an important part of his college experience. “While diversity at the University of Minnesota Morris may make some prospective students uncomfortable, I believe it will have the exact opposite effect on a much larger number of students,” Young wrote in the letter, which has been signed by more than 200 student organizations and individuals. In a message he shared ChronicleYoung invited Regent Morris to visit the campus and have dinner. According to him, Sviggum accepted the invitation.

Sviggum, a Republican and former speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, acknowledged several times during the meeting that his remarks could put him on “thin ice.” But he said, “I had to say it, and I’m free to do it.”

Interview together Chronicle, he said he supports DEI’s efforts in the system and that his question was not intended to challenge them. “For those who inferred that from the question, I apologize for that. But that’s other people’s conclusion, not my comments or statements,” Sviggum said. He added that the question was not racist either.

According to Sviggum, the “uproar” caused by his remarks points to the extremism that exists in our society.

Audrey Williams June contributed to this report.

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