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South Dakota Board of Regents and Gov. Kristi Noem release varied statements on Critical Race Theory

The Board of Regents overseeing South Dakota's six public universities issued a 4-page report and statement around CRT on Thursday, noting the controversial academic lens will not be a "basis" for instruction. Gov. Noem's team went further, saying the BOR is "restricting" CRT. The mixed messages are "purposely vague," says one lawmaker.

Kristi Noem 2021.JPG
Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. (REUTERS/Octavio Jones)

PIERRE, S.D. — An escalating public debate on the role of tough discussions about race in South Dakota colleges sent a midsummer whiplash through South Dakota's higher education system on Thursday, August 5.

A statement from Gov. Kristi Noem suggested the state's regents overseeing public universities are "restricting" Critical Race Theory, while later remarks from the regents' executive director say CRT will merely not be the "basis for instruction" in the state.

On Thursday morning, a statement attributed to the Board of Regents and newly appointed Regent Tony Venhuizen, formerly the chief of staff to Noem, appeared to toe the line of academic freedom, noting that Critical Race Theory -- a school of discourse on racism in America that has been maligned by conservatives as divisive -- would not constitute the "basis of instruction" in South Dakota college classrooms.

Later, a statement from Noem's office went further than the board’s press release and 3-page report, saying that public universities in South Dakota were "restricting the teaching of Critical Race Theory at state colleges and universities."

The statement also said higher education diversity offices, which often aid first-generation and underrepresented learners with skills to stay enrolled, would be replaced by so-called "Opportunity Centers."

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In fact, the board’s "opportunity for all" report, also released Thursday, mentions Opportunity Centers, but notes that -- similar to Diversity Centers -- they'll be an "inclusive community."

Asked to clarify a gap between Noem's press release from the board’s statement on race theory, Noem spokesman Ian Fury repeated a claim attributed to Venhuizen that CRT would not be the 'basis" for instruction.

Similarly, in an email overnight, board Executive Director Brian Maher repeated the "basis of instruction" mantra.

"It would be accurate to state the following: Critical Race Theory is not the basis for instruction in our state universities and it's not going to be," said Maher.

In a message Friday, State Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat and economics professor at Augustana University, called the terminology used by Noem "purposely vague," pointing out that neither statement outlines "particular articles, texts, or authors" with the CRT label.

"What is banned and what is not?" asked Nesiba. "Still, this has a chilling effect on any education related to race and is a major government overreach by the governor."

He called the tactics a "diversion."

Also Friday, Mark Geary, an education professor at Dakota State University and president of the statewide faculty union, contrasted the board’s statement with the statement from Noem, whom he said is motivated by a potential run for president and thus "is pressured to speak about ideas not based in fact."

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He said he hopes the board works to navigate its relationship with Noem and other critical voices in the Republican-dominated Legislature in such a way to maintain “the value and credibility" of South Dakota colleges.

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