U regent apologizes for suggesting Morris campus 'too diverse'

Former Indian boarding school dormitory at Univ. of Minnesota Morris
One building remains on the present-day University of Minnesota Morris campus from the days when an Indian boarding school stood there. University of Minnesota regent Steve Sviggum has issued an apology for remarks he made about the student body and enrollment at the U's Morris campus.
Tom Weber | MPR news 2018

Updated: 5:05 p.m.

University of Minnesota regent Steve Sviggum apologized late Tuesday for his earlier suggestion that the racial and ethnic diversity on the U’s Morris campus might be a marketing problem that’s led to declining enrollment there.

“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, during a meeting of regents last week.

The regent, a former GOP speaker of the Minnesota House, didn’t provide any facts to support the assertion, saying only that 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."

His comments drew immediate pushback from students and some fellow regents. Dylan Young, president of the student association on the Morris campus, said diversity on campus is a school strength that needed to be embraced.

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In a statement, Ken Powell, chair of the U regents board, also called diversity a strength that “creates opportunity, and it opens the door for many more who have been historically excluded from the economic and other benefits of higher education.”

Powell said on Wednesday the full Board of Regents will meet on the Morris campus next March and he’s committed to bringing “DEI training to the entire Board of Regents that will help us more fully understand and reaffirm the power that different perspectives bring to our shared success. Diversity is not a challenge, it is a strength that makes our institution — and Morris — one of the most highly regarded universities in the country.”

Sviggum had continued to defend his comments, telling telling MPR News on Monday afternoon he didn’t regret asking the question.

By late Tuesday, however, Sviggum changed course, saying he wanted to “unequivocally apologize for my questions.”

“I clearly have more to learn to better understand the strength that diversity brings to our institution, and I look forward to taking those who have reached out to me up on their offers to meet and to hear their perspectives and learn from them. I am willing to learn and I must do better — and I will,” Sviggum, vice chair of the regents, said in a statement.

The Morris campus in western Minnesota has a majority white student body; about a third of students are Native Americans and about 10 percent are non-Native people of color. The campus includes buildings that once served as an American Indian boarding school. Qualified Native students today attend Morris tuition-free.

The campus has seen its 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 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.

Read the full statement from Sviggum

“Last week, during University of Minnesota Morris Interim Chancellor Erickson’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. I have only respect and admiration for any individual who seeks to better themselves through higher education, whether at Morris or at any of our wonderful campuses. 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. I hope that all of our graduates elect to stay in Minnesota after graduation and work, every day, for the betterment of our state.

My intent – recognizing that my words matter – was to foster discussion around the consistently declining enrollment at Morris, which is not a one-year trend or even a concern that has emerged out of the COVID pandemic. Rather, student enrollment has been declining for years (down 50% from its peak) and the future of this great campus depends on finding solutions to reverse that trend.

I have been blessed throughout my life as a farmer to work with a diversity of people across our state and our nation from all backgrounds. As a layperson in my church, I have shared the joys and heartbreaks of so many of my fellow parishioners. And as a proud Regent, I have been given the incredible opportunity to help our institution, our president, and our students, staff, and faculty who set a very high bar for the rest of us.

Again, I offer my sincerest apologies. I clearly have more to learn to better understand the strength that diversity brings to our institution, and I look forward to taking those who have reached out to me up on their offers to meet and to hear their perspectives and learn from them. I am willing to learn and I must do better—and I will.”