U regent Sviggum wonders if Morris campus is 'too diverse'

University of Minnesota Morris campus
University of Minnesota regent Steve Swiggum’s recent assertion that diversity might be a marketing problem for the Morris campus is drawing pushback. White students make up about 54 percent of enrollment, compared to about 58 percent in the pre-pandemic years.
Tom Weber | MPR News

Updated: 3:56 p.m.

A member of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents is coming under fire for a suggestion he made that the Morris campus is "too diverse" and that diversity might be making it harder to draw students there.

Vice chair of the board Steve Sviggum asked the question Thursday during a discussion about enrollment.

“Is it possible that at Morris, we've become too diverse? Is that possible, all from a marketing standpoint?” Sviggum asked Janet Schrunk Ericksen, acting chancellor of the Morris campus.

Sviggum, a former Republican speaker of the Minnesota House, told the meeting he’d received a “couple of letters” from friends whose children chose not to go to Morris because they considered it “too diverse …. they just didn't feel comfortable there."

The Morris campus in western Minnesota has seen enrollment decline from the years before the COVID-19 pandemic — from 1,554 in the 2017-18 school year to 1,024 in the current year, according to data collected by the U’s institutional research office.

The white student population, however, has stayed relatively stable in that period. White students made up about 58 percent of the enrollment in 2017-18, compared to about 54 percent this school year.

The largest relative drop in that time came from international students whose enrollment plummeted from 11 percent of the campus to just over two percent, according to university data.

A graph showing demographic information
Student enrollment broken down by race at University of Minnesota, Morris.
University of Minnesota data

The Morris campus includes buildings that once served as an American Indian boarding school. Qualified Native students today attend the U campus tuition-free. About one-third of the students attending this school year are of Native ancestry. The number has stayed relatively stable, or somewhat lower than a peak of 356 in the 2020-21 school year.

Non-Native, U.S.-born students of color — including Black students and those of Hispanic and Asian ancestry — make up about 10 percent of the current student body at Morris, unchanged from 2017-18.

Morris saw its enrollment this century peak in the 2013-14 school year at 1,846 students with two-thirds of them white.

Systemwide, white students make up about 62 percent of the degree-seeking University of Minnesota student body currently, according to U data. They make up about 55 percent of the Rochester campus enrollment, which is about the same as in Morris.

Sviggum did not detail the specific concerns around diversity in Morris during the regents meeting Thursday, and several at the meeting pushed back on the assertion that diversity was a hindrance.

"I think that they would be shocked that anyone would think our campus was too diverse,” Ericksen told the regents, citing a recent meeting with members of the campus Black student union. “They certainly at times feel very isolated where they are located.”

In an interview with MPR News Monday afternoon, Sviggum said he doesn’t regret asking the question and has not decided whether the campus is too diverse.

Sviggum answers questions from MPR News

U regent Sviggum wonders if Morris campus is 'too diverse'

"You're seeking information. Why would you see that as being wrong? For those that do, or would see it as being offensive, I apologize to them. It was certainly not meant in that way, in either a racist or sexist form." 

Responding to Sviggum's comments before the regents, Dylan Young, president of the student association on the Morris campus, said diversity on campus was a school strength that needed to be embraced.

In an open letter to Sviggum, Young, of Native ancestry, offered to buy the regent dinner at Morris and invite a diverse cross-section of students "to let your two friends and their children know that diversity should be embraced — not feared."

Student association president Dylan Young responds to Sviggum’s remarks

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talks with U of M Morris student association president Dylan Young about Regent Sviggum's comments.