Sviggum steps down as U regents vice chair after questioning Morris campus diversity

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. After apologizing for remarks he made about the student body and enrollment at Morris, U regent Steve Sviggum said Tuesday he'll step down as vice chair of the regents board.
Tom Weber | MPR news 2018

University of Minnesota regent Steve Sviggum said Tuesday he’ll no longer serve as vice chair of the system’s board of regents. The move comes weeks after he defended and then apologized for his comments suggesting diversity might be creating a marketing problem for the U’s Morris campus.

In a letter distributed by the university, Sviggum said he’ll finish his term as a regent, but will no longer serve as the board’s vice chair. His term will expire next year when the Legislature conducts its regent election process during the 2023 session, the university said.

Sviggum, a former GOP speaker of the Minnesota House, set off a firestorm two weeks ago when in a meeting with regents he suggested the racial and ethnic diversity at Morris, in western Minnesota, could be leading to overall 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.

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Sviggum 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, called diversity on campus a school strength that needed to be embraced.

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.”

Sviggum continued to defend his comments, telling telling MPR News at one point he did not regret asking the question. Later, however, Sviggum changed course, saying he wanted to “unequivocally apologize for my questions.”

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.

Like colleges across the country, 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.