University of Minnesota regents vice chair questions if Morris campus is 'too diverse'

The vice chair of the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents is facing some criticism after questioning whether low enrollment at the university's Morris, Minnesota campus is the result of "too much diversity."

The comments came during a meeting last week, as the board discussed issues with declining enrollment at Morris, which has seen a 44-percent drop over the last ten years from 1,896 enrolled students in 2012 to 1068 students in 2022.

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Speaking during the meeting, Vice Chair Steve Sviggum, a former state rep, raised a controversial question, pondering if enrollment decreases at the Morris campus, in rural west-central Minnesota could be attributed to "too much diversity."

"As a campus and as an institution of the university, we like to promote and we need to promote and it's important to promote DEI and diversity," he explained. "It is possible that at Morris, we've become too diverse?"

"Is it possible at all, from a marketing standpoint," he continued. "For instance, I've received a couple of letters -- two actually -- from friends whose children are not going to go to Morris because it is too diverse of a campus. They just didn't feel comfortable there."

"Is that at all possible in the specific of Morris that we become too diverse for a student to attend? And again, I'm on thin ice. I understand that. At 71 years or 72 years old, I say things that I would never thought when I was 52. But it gives you a little of freedom to do that."

In response, Morris Chancellor Janet Schrunk Ericksen shot down any notion that the campus suffers from too much diversity.

"I had a meeting this week with students who are members of the Black Student Union on our campus," the chancellor explained. "I think that they would be shocked that anyone would think our campus was too diverse. They certainly at times feel very isolated where they are located. So from that perspective, the answer is no."

The chancellor also argued that diversity is a particularly important experience for students.

"I would add to it that multiple perspectives are absolutely core to education and particularly liberal arts education," said Schrunk Ericksen. "It's something that we highly value and we try really hard to be inclusive of all perspectives, not just those of historically underrepresented populations."

"One, I might speak to the increasing polarization and politicization as well as a factor in that perception rather than the actual on-the-ground experience of the students and our student numbers," the chancellor added.

Enrollment data shows the number of students at the University of Minnesota-Morris who identify as white has fallen from 1,348 in 2011 to 579 in 2022. In that same time period, the number of students from other backgrounds has also fallen at the school from 583 to 488, but with most of that loss coming from international students.

Speaking with WCCO Radio's Vineeta Sawkar on Monday, Sviggum didn't back down from the controversy, defending his questions and arguing he was pondering what might be an ugly truth.

"Isn't it a legitimate question that should be asked," argued Sviggum. "As a public decisionmaker, in this case – the University of Minnesota case – don't you think that every program we have, every policy we have, should be at least questioned? Nothing should be above or below questioning. I think it's fair to at least ask the question. I don't see asking a question as being offensive or wrong and certainly, certainly, not racist."

Sviggum also relented that there are plenty of other factors – like tuition costs, more competition from other colleges, and fewer high school graduates to begin with.