Constructive Responses to University of Minnesota regent’s question

The following column originally appeared in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during October, 2022.

Constructive responses to University of Minnesota regent’s question

University of Minnesota Regent Steve Sviggum’s recent question about the possibility of too much diversity offers students, faculty and staff a terrific opportunity. They can explain how various forms of diversity produce a stronger, better education. Some have started doing this, as described below. I hope they continue and expand their efforts.

As many readers know, Sviggum questioned whether the diversity at the University of Minnesota, Morris, was contributing to its significant decline in enrollment. According to Sue Dieter, the school’s public relations and communication specialist, the university’s fall 2022 enrollment includes 1,086 students; 56% are white, 32% are Native American. Overall, 41% are Black, Native American, Hispanic or Asian or Pacific Islander. Ten percent are international students. This has made national news, via a story in the Washington Post , as well as social media posts.

Sviggum’s questions produced strong responses. One of the most eloquent was from Dylan Young, president of the University of Minnesota, Morris, student body. Young, who describes himself as a Native American student from South Dakota, wrote:

Dylan Young (photo courtesy of Mr. Young)

“While the diversity of the University of Minnesota Morris might make some prospective students uncomfortable, I reckon that it has the exact opposite effect on a far greater number of students.” He has “come to consider Morris’s diverse and vibrant community my second home.” Young also described some challenges he faced, including having a University of Minnesota, Morris, faculty member recommend that during the pandemic, he “Zoom into class from the local Subway restaurant because my home did not have an adequate internet connection.”

Sviggum apologized. He wrote, in part:

“Last week, during University of Minnesota Morris Interim Chancellor Ericksen’s presentation on MPact 2025 enrollment goals at Morris, I posed a question regarding the diversity of the student body and whether that diversity was—in any way—linked to the recent enrollment challenges.

“Let me unequivocally apologize for my questions, and especially for the unintended hurt my questions may have caused. They were not intended to cause harm, but my intent does not matter. For those whom I have harmed or offended, and for all of those associated with our great university, I am truly sorry. … Minnesota benefits from our many amazing students from all walks of life who make incredible contributions to our community, and their work strengthens the great state of Minnesota.”

Here’s his complete statement.

A statement from University of Minnesota Board of Regents Chair Ken Powell (former CEO of General Mills) is here.

Recently, I talked with Flora Yang, who grew up in Eden Prairie, and Zeke Jackson, who was raised in Little Falls. Yang currently is president, and Jackson is vice president of the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities undergraduate student government. They represent roughly 36,000 students. They wrote in part: “Regent Sviggum’s apology and his reference to lifelong learning is a step in the right direction. (However) This incident highlights to the public what students often feel – that there is a disconnect between the Board of Regents and the general student population.” They urged that the regents have more direct communication with students.

I asked Yang and Jackson if they’re considering outreach to families and students about the value of diversity that they encounter. They are discussing this.

Fourth District University of Minnesota Regent and recent University of Minnesota student James Farnsworth, who describes himself as a person of color, told me he was “surprised and dismayed” by the questions. Farnsworth is working for “more productive conversations.”

Sviggum promised to meet with and listen to students at the University of Minnesota, Morris. I hope those conversations include follow up by young people and the regents.

Next steps could — and I think should — involve students writing why having a diversity of students and faculty enhances their education. I hope news media publish some of what they write. Furthermore, as Yang, Jackson, Farnsworth and I discussed, students can use social media to reach thousands of young people.

I asked Yang and Jackson if they’re considering outreach to families and students about the value of diversity that they encounter. They are discussing this.

A recent column discussed the new, valuable insights I gained from a Black faculty member and students in college more than 50 years ago. Having a diverse group of students enhances learning.

This incident offers opportunities to increase and expand understanding. I hope Minnesotans do this.

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: Joe@centerforschoolchange.org and JoeNathan9249.