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Editorial: “Too Diverse”

Sviggum’s comments sparked controversy system-wide.
Image by Sarah Mai

Last October, the University of Minnesota Board of Regents then-Vice-Chair Steve Sviggum asked if it was possible that the Morris campus had become “too diverse.” His question was inspired by letters he received from parents who claimed their students passed on Morris because they were “uncomfortable” with the diversity.

As a Native American student, and Morris’s then-student body president, I thought it was fitting to send Sviggum a letter of my own. 

In my open letter, I candidly opened up about my experiences as a Native student. I invited Sviggum to dinner on the Morris campus so he could hear directly from the student population he implied was too diverse. When Sviggum and I met, he was combative and refused to tell students he was truly as sorry as he claimed to be publicly. Afterwards, I joined several other University of Minnesota system student leaders in calling for his resignation, as we deemed him unfit to serve BIPOC students in the university system. 

A year has passed since the controversy. Sviggum’s term on the Board expired and I imagine he is enjoying a quiet life on his farm –– a well-earned retirement after a public service career that started decades before I was even born.

I graduated from Morris in May as the class speaker. When I spoke at commencement, I received standing ovations when I commended our class’s dedication to diversity and equity. Now, I’m also enjoying a quiet life as I apply for public policy programs and finish my final undergraduate credits remotely. Yet,fter all this time, I still have a lingering regret. 

Make no mistakes, I stand by my decision to invite Steve Sviggum to dinner on the Morris campus. I also stand by my decision to call for his resignation after our meeting turned sour. My regret does not lie in my treatment of the individual, but rather the society that made him.

Did we miss out on an opportunity to truly confront systemic racism in higher education by focusing too much on the transgressions of a single individual? 

I think people had trouble understanding Sviggum’s comment as the inevitable byproduct of society’s current status quo, and not just an isolated malignancy. In the week following Sviggum’s comment, MinnPost published an opinion piece by Harry Colbert Jr., which explored the isolation felt by students on the Morris campus. In the article, students who were interviewed spoke to struggles similar to mine.

One student said local bars didn’t accept tribal IDs. Another said he was often the only Black student in their classes. Both students felt “unwanted” by the University even before Sviggum’s comments. In other words, Sviggum’s words didn’t make BIPOC students at Morris vulnerable –– it only built upon a pattern these students already knew existed. 

In the weeks following Sviggum’s comments, the Board released statements affirming its commitment to diversity and equity. In my opinion, it is not too late for the Board to start thinking of ways to put those words into action. 

In a national landscape where DEI offices and ethnic studies programs are being defunded, the University can distinguish itself on a national level through historic investments into these programs. With the release of the TRUTH Project report, which outlines the University’s systematic mistreatment of Indigenous people, the University would be wise to hire a president who is willing to meet most, if not all, of the report’s recommendations.

As I discussed in my letter to Sviggum a year ago, BIPOC students face financial problems that interfere with academic outcomes. Finding ways to reduce tuition, rather than raise it, would go a long way towards addressing these problems for all students, especially those from diverse backgrounds. These are just a few of the ways the University could be a champion of addressing systemic racism. With the outlawing of affirmative action, these efforts are needed now more than ever.

Sviggum will likely not be the last figure to have a very public and bigoted “senior moment.” For our future student leaders, and anyone else who supports racial diversity in our public colleges, it is worthwhile to engage with these individuals and hold them accountable for their words and actions. Yes, even if that means asking them to step aside. However, students, University leaders and the press should remember to pay equal or more attention to challenging the systems and society that birthed these prejudiced ways of thinking. 

We can’t miss out on improving the conditions of hundreds or thousands by affording too much time and energy on one man. 

Dylan Young is a student at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

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