U of M regent asks if Morris campus is becoming ‘too diverse’

By: - October 17, 2022 2:10 pm

University of Minnesota Regent Steve Sviggum questioned if diversity was behind the Morris campus’ declining enrollment during a board meeting on Oct. 13, 2022. Screenshot.

University of Minnesota Regent Steve Sviggum suggested that increased diversity may be contributing to declining enrollment at the system’s rural Morris campus during a recent meeting of the board of regents.

“Is it possible at Morris that we’ve become too diverse? Is it possible at all from a marketing standpoint?” Sviggum said.

Sviggum prefaced his comments by saying it’s important for the institution to promote diversity but said he received two comments from friends saying their kids wouldn’t attend U of M-Morris because it is “too diverse a campus.”

“They just didn’t feel comfortable there,” Sviggum said.

Sviggum, a former Republican speaker of the Minnesota House, raised the question as the board was discussing declining enrollment with the Morris campus’ acting chancellor Janet Schrunk Ericksen.

Like colleges and universities across the country, the University of Minnesota-Morris has been grappling with declining enrollments for the past decade. Of the University of Minnesota’s five campuses, enrollment has declined the greatest at Morris, which has seen a 45% drop in the number of students attending from 10 years ago. In the 2011 academic year, Morris had 1,932 students compared to 1,068 today.

In her presentation to the regents on Oct. 12, Ericksen said the college has struggled to attract students amid increased competition for high school students and a growing preference for urban campuses.

The greatest enrollment decline has been among white students. Nearly 70% of the student body was white a decade ago compared to 54% of the student body in the current academic year. The share of Native students has increased significantly from 13% a decade ago to 31% today.

The Morris campus has historically had a large Native American student population, a function of the college’s history. The college is on the site of a former Indian boarding school. When the land was transferred to the state of Minnesota it came with the stipulation that Native students have free tuition.

The college also offers extensive Native cultural and academic programming, including Ojibwe language instruction. It boasts being the only four-year college in the upper Midwest qualifying for federal designation as a Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institution.

While the share of Native American students at Morris has increased over the past decade, the percentage of other racial minorities has not changed significantly.

Sviggum said he knew he was “on thin ice” with the question but “at 72 years old, I say things that I wouldn’t never of even thought when I was 52.”

Ericksen replied that she recently met with members of the Black student association, who would disagree with that characterization. Less than 4% of the student body is Black.

“I think they would be shocked that anyone would think our campus was too diverse. They certainly, at times, feel very isolated where they are located,” Ericksen said. “So from that perspective, the answer is no.”

She went on to say multiple perspectives are “absolutely core” to liberal arts education, and noted that white students are the majority on the campus.

Sviggum said it was a good answer.

Sviggum later went on WCCO Radio to defend the comments, saying he was “just asking a question.”

Sviggum served in the state House for 28 years as a Republican representative from southeastern Minnesota. He left the House to be commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry. He later became communications director for the Republican caucus in the state Senate. He has served on the Board of Regents since 2011.

University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel has not publicly responded to Sviggum’s comments. Regents Board Chair Ken Powell issued a statement saying “our diversity is a strength.”

Graphs by Christopher Ingraham.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.