U. of Minnesota Regent Resigns Leadership Post After Asking Whether Campus Is ‘Too Diverse’

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A University of Minnesota regent who asked in a public meeting this month whether one of the system’s campuses is “too diverse” has resigned as vice chair of the board. Steven A. Sviggum, who posed the question about the Morris campus during a committee meeting of the board, said he would continue to serve as a regent until his term ends, in 2023.

During the meeting, Sviggum said he had received two letters from people whose children elected not to enroll at Morris because “they just didn’t feel comfortable there.” That correspondence prompted Sviggum to ask, “Is it all possible, in the specifics of Morris, that we’ve become too diverse for a student to attend?”

After nearly two weeks of backlash, Sviggum on Tuesday sent his resignation to Kendall J. Powell, the board chair. After a Saturday-morning meeting between the two, Sviggum wrote, “I have come to the realization that I should resign from the vice chairmanship, effective immediately. I owe that position to my colleagues who have shown disapproval in my actions.”

Sviggum made his controversial remarks as the board committee discussed declining enrollment at Morris and the system’s other regional comprehensive campuses. The comments were challenged at the time by the Morris campus’s acting chancellor and by a fellow regent. In an interview with The Chronicle last week, Sviggum said he was “not making the connection” between declining enrollment and increased diversity. He also defended his right to raise questions, even if they’re impolitic, and described the reaction to his original remarks as “indicative of the extremism that exists within our society.”

He later released a statement through a university spokesperson.

“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,” Sviggum wrote in the statement. “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 percent from its peak), and the future of this great campus depends on finding solutions to reverse that trend.”

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Sviggum said he had no further comment. Powell, through the spokesperson, referred to his statement last week apologizing on the board’s behalf for Sviggum’s remarks. “We all bear responsibility for speaking up and condemning the question, whether on Thursday or in our Friday meeting,” that statement read. “As the leader of our board, I should have done better, and I am not proud of my inaction.”

The acting chancellor of the Morris campus, Janet Schrunk Ericksen, also declined to comment on Sviggum’s resignation.

The Morris Campus Student Association on Monday passed a resolution calling for Sviggum to resign or be removed as vice chair, citing his “failure to stand for the institutional values of diversity and equity.” The association’s president, Dylan Young, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, also wrote in a letter to Sviggum last week that his ties to the Native American community on campus have been a key part of his college experience. Young’s letter was also signed by more than 200 student organizations and individuals. (Young on Tuesday declined further comment in an email to The Chronicle.)

More than 140 Morris faculty and staff members signed a second open letter, “asserting our support for diversity and inclusion at Morris, and walking through the erroneous premise” of Sviggum’s question. That letter, which was addressed to the Morris community and prospective students, listed several diversity-focused initiatives on the campus.

Sviggum, a former speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, has resigned a post on the board before. In 2012 he resigned from the board after a three-member panel determined that he had an “unmanageable conflict of interest” between his roles as regent and as chief spokesperson for the Senate Republican Caucus, MPR News reported at the time. Sviggum was re-elected to the board in 2017.

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