Editorial Roundup: Lessons learned from U of M regent’s blunder

Published 8:50 pm Tuesday, November 1, 2022

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There’s a happy ending to be had in the sorry story of Steve Sviggum’s theorizing about the enrollment decline at the University of Minnesota’s Morris campus. That would be a sudden surge in enrollment by students who actually seek the environment that the regent questioned as possibly “too diverse.”

No doubt there are other possible happy endings, as well as a few silver linings. One of them is that a meeting of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents has gotten the public’s attention. Now that the clip of a regents meeting has gone viral, more people know there is a Board of Regents. And that it holds meetings. And that the university has a campus in a place called Morris.

Another silver lining is that a student named Dylan Young, president of the Morris Campus Student Association, has achieved what must be the ambition of any student leader: to have engaged publicly in a battle of wits with a regent (or trustee, dean, president or provost) and emerged on top. Young wrote an open letter to Sviggum that was everything Sviggum’s original remarks were not: reasonable, levelheaded and cogent.

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“As we look towards overcoming enrollment struggles, this institution cannot turn its back on the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion out of fear and discomfort,” Young wrote. “We need to embrace them.” He concluded the letter by inviting Sviggum to visit Morris and have dinner with members of the campus community.

Speaking of dinner, Sviggum bowed to the inevitable on Tuesday and ate his words. After days of obstinately clinging to the public stance that he had merely asked an innocent question, he issued an apology that recognized an important fact: His intent didn’t matter. Finally, he admitted that he had caused harm and took responsibility for it.

That admission, welcome as it is, may not undo the harm. His statement seemed to suggest that he had gotten the wording wrong in framing a legitimate query. A better course would have been to concede that he had betrayed a gap in his understanding of racism and privilege.

It is hard to read Sviggum’s original comments about Morris any other way. Speaking to the acting Morris chancellor, Janet Schrunk Ericksen, Sviggum said that he had received letters — “two, actually” — from “friends whose children are not going to go to Morris because it is too diverse. They just didn’t feel comfortable there.”

In a phone interview, a Star Tribune reporter asked the ethnicity of the two students who had felt uncomfortable. Sviggum replied that he didn’t know. Presumably, then, the two friends who wrote to Sviggum are not particularly close to him.

We’ll go out on a limb and suggest that they are probably white, as is Sviggum. He didn’t specify their ethnicity during the meeting, but he was speaking from the implicit perspective of a society that is assumed to be white by default. It is a view that presumes whiteness as normal.

The Morris student body is 54% white. The next largest ethnicity is Native American, at 32%, presumably because Native students need not pay tuition. The Morris website adds, though, that almost two-thirds of the student body come from backgrounds that are traditionally underserved in higher education — whether for race, socioeconomic status, disability or some other reason.

As Dylan Young argued in his letter, all of that is a strength. Together with the charm of the campus and a strong liberal arts program, diversity helps make Morris an excellent place to go to school.

In an interview that aired before he issued his apology, Sviggum protested that “I just simply asked a question. We should not be above asking questions.” We hope he has now learned that some questions should be beneath him.

— Minneapolis Star 

Tribune, Oct. 19

About Editorial Roundup

Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

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