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South Dakota's public universities were ordered to drop 'diversity' for 'opportunity centers.' Some staff left

As first reported by its campus newspaper, South Dakota State University saw four employees heading up diverse student retention quit this fall. In August, the Board of Regents vowed to overhaul multicultural offices as "opportunity centers." Supporters say the name is politically neutral. Opponents argue it's anything but.

SDSU American Indian Student Center1
A view of the lobby of the newly built American Indian Student Center on the South Dakota State University campus.
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — On Monday, speaking atop a hotel in downtown Sioux Falls, two men overseeing public universities in the state dispelled notions that a whitewashing of diversity services was afoot by a shift to so-called "opportunity centers" in the coming year.

"Up at SDSU [South Dakota State University], they're looking at making an area designated for all support for everyone," Board of Regent Tim Rave, a former Republican House Speaker, told the Rotary Club of Downtown Sioux Falls.

What Rave and fellow Regent Tony Venhuizen didn't share, however, was the defection of staff in recent months.

Since the school year's beginning, four employees in diversity efforts at South Dakota State University have left their jobs. At the University of South Dakota, a new director of the opportunity center has yet to be hired. Meanwhile, other campuses are unsure what's in store for diversity and inclusion efforts beginning Jan. 1.

The tenuousness has worried higher education observers, including the first man to hold a diversity job at USD.

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"South Dakota has a history of being clear that white lives matter," Bruce King -- newly hired as the vice president for equity and inclusion at Elmhurst University in Chicago and USD's inaugural diversity officer back in 2005 -- told Forum News Service on Wednesday, Dec. 1. "I don't think [they] yet value the concept of diversity means beyond the political rhetoric they see."

An opportunity for a name change

When Gov. Kristi Noem announced, via governor's executive order in August, that public college campus diversity centers -- which she accused of "advancing leftist agendas" -- would be "replaced" by "opportunity centers," college administrators were left standing flat-footed.

In a meeting in September, USD provost Kurt Hackemer said "there's a misnomer" that the opportunity centers would be replacing USD's Center for Diversity & Community, which has served as a meetinghouse for LGBTQ, first generation, and students of color, among others.

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The campus of the University of South Dakota in Vermillion has opened the fall 2021 school year without a mask mandate. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

In fact, over the last few months, campus officials across the state’s six public universities have downplayed changes, reiterating that student groups to offices serving historically underserved students will remain.

On Monday , Venhuizen, who left Noem's office as chief of staff in April , explained the opportunity centers would simply co-locate varied services under one roof.

"So maybe you need a tutor, maybe you need a counselor, maybe you need to join the frisbee golf team, you know, whatever you need to help you get connected," said Venhuizen.

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Obliquely, Venhuizen acknowledged "our fault, in part" may have been in communicating these changes to campuses.

Some say they heard the university loud and clear, however.

Defections from school

As first reported in The Collegian , SDSU’s campus newspaper, four staff left the Brookings college between August and October. A former adviser to the Latin American Student Association also left last December.

In an email to FNS, a spokesman for SDSU did not confirm or deny the departures but noted three of the four positions have been re-staffed.

On Tuesday, Nov. 30, Morgan Catlett-Ausborn -- formerly an American Indian Student Success Adviser at SDSU – told FNS even prior to this summer's announcement of the name change, she’d been warned by other SDSU employees against using the phrase "indigenize spaces,” which she was told was upsetting to some students.

"Dude, this is how we create spaces that are welcoming to students who aren't white," Catlett-Ausborn remembered explaining to a colleague.

August's announcement from Noem, she said, represented the final straw.

"At the end of the day, it became that moral issue," said Catlett-Ausborn. "There was no longer the university walking the talk."

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Fights over diversity efforts have become commonplace at South Dakota's colleges. In April, Northern State University President Timothy Downs resigned just weeks after an executive board reversed a decision , which had drawn criticism as hyper political correctness, to end the homecoming name, Gypsy Days.

Earlier this week, the Rapid City Journal reported that South Dakota School of Mines and Technology had to pay a $5,000 fine to its athletic conference over racist remarks lobbed by three students at football players from the visiting Colorado Mesa University at a game in November.

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South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. (Matt Gade / Forum News Service)
Matt Gade

These public incidents come at the same time lawmakers are increasingly emboldened to call out what they see as liberal bias on campus.

In a recent editorial , Rep. Trish Ladner, a Fall River County Republican, objected to a USD faculty member teaching an introductory film appreciation class requiring students watch "13th," a documentary about racism in prisons.

Such scrutiny puts campuses in a tough spot, say university officials: recruit new students and create attractive campuses while avoiding the typical diversity rhetoric that will undoubtedly trigger political pressure from Pierre.

At Monday's Rotary Club talk, Rave said only that "some legislators" lacked "full appreciation" of what a diversity center "was, is, will be" and framed the name change as an attempt to ameliorate hostile legislation down the road.

He also credited the name's coining to fellow Regent and former Republican lawmaker, Jeff Partridge.

On Tuesday, Partridge declined an interview request with FNS, instead sending a statement saying it was his final day as a Regent -- for now -- as he would be temporarily stepping into a role as commissioner of Bureau of Finance & Management.

"Some may criticize this policy because their individual group may not get enough attention or preference," said Partridge, who said he stood by the Regents' move.

Diversity as retention, employment strategy

The top appeal of an "opportunity center," say supporters, is bringing together various offices - those serving veteran and disabled students, to LGBTQ, Latinx to Native American and Black students -- all under one roof.

From institutional data, however, it's clear that race or tribal identity, more than other categories, can reflect which students are retained at regental schools.

At SDSU, whose 2020 incoming class of freshman was 90% white, veterans remained in school between their freshman and sophomore years at a rate of 59% to 90% between 2012 and 2017, according to the BOR . During that same time frame, however, the retention rate for Native students ranged from 25% to 68% .

With recent U.S. Census data documenting that the growth in the state's population has been fastest among recent immigrants, racial minorities, and Native populations , former diversity director King wondered if the state was fully ready to attract (and keep) the students it needed to fill future jobs.

"Who's going to take care of your seniors? Who will populate your workforce?" asked King. "South Dakota could be a welcoming place. But I don't think the state gets that yet."

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