How Diversity Became a Bad Word at One State’s Public Colleges

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I
n a course Dyanis Conrad teaches called “The Foundations of American Education,” she spends the first few weeks of the semester establishing that racism is real.

Many of the students in Conrad’s University of South Dakota classroom have never had to think critically about race. There are places in South Dakota where people can live their whole lives without bumping into a Black person or person of color, and for a number of her students, Conrad is the first Black person they’ve ever talked to.

Those conversations can be difficult. But avoiding them, she believes, would be much worse.

In 2020, Conrad, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, was singled out by “Woki-Leaks,” a website that claims to expose “wokeness” at the state’s universities. One of her alleged offenses: speaking on a podcast hosted by the University of South Dakota during Black History Month, where she talked about critical social justice. She was subsequently criticized by South Dakota’s Republican governor for, she claimed, promoting critical race theory.

Conrad said in an interview with The Chronicle that she doesn’t teach CRT. But she does highlight some aspects of it in her teaching — just as other teacher-educators do.

“All CRT does is give you a lens to ask questions,” she said. “Whose voices were silenced? Whose voices were amplified? What kinds of opportunities did people have to share their perspectives? What were the factors in business, politics, religion, etc., that might have influenced these decisions?”

Across the country, Republican lawmakers have increasingly argued that public colleges are spending taxpayer dollars to indoctrinate students with liberal ideology about privilege and racial justice, hire useless diversity bureaucrats, and silence conservative voices. A wave of related bills have been introduced in more than two-dozen states since January 2021.

In South Dakota, that rhetoric has had serious consequences for higher ed in the state, several faculty members and administrators say.

The state legislature passed bills ordering colleges to promote “intellectual diversity” and to discontinue all training and orientation programs that cover certain “divisive concepts” related to race, gender, and sex. Governor Kristi Noem enthusiastically signed those bills, plus an executive order banning the state from applying for federal grants that have ties to critical race theory.

Noem also directed the South Dakota Board of Regents, the governing body for the state’s public universities, to strongly consider doing away with campus diversity offices. (Board members are appointed by Noem.) In January, the state’s six public universities did just that — replacing them with “opportunity centers.”

The Chronicle spoke with seven current and former administrators, faculty members, and students across South Dakota. They described a climate that had become inhospitable for people who want to talk about race in their classrooms and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion on their campuses — especially those who identify as queer, Black, or people of color. They said the universities themselves are trying to help, but campus leaders’ hands are tied.

Some of them have been driven to resign.

Over the years, Republican leaders in South Dakota have become increasingly fixated on what they see as “wokeness” on campuses.

In 2019, students at the University of South Dakota’s law school proposed holding a celebration they called “Hawaiian Day.” A student objected to the party’s theme and its use of “Indigenous cultural symbols” like leis, according to the Argus Leader, and told law-school administrators. Officials then advised student organizers to change the theme to “Beach Day” and to avoid distributing leis, citing a school policy on inclusiveness.

The decision drew outrage from lawmakers, who saw it as an example of rampant political correctness. So Noem and other Republican leaders backed a law that they said was designed to protect free speech and open debate at the state’s colleges. Institutions now have to make efforts to include a range of ideological views in programs and events, and survey their students annually on whether they feel comfortable sharing their views.

Lamont A. Sellers, a former chief diversity officer at the University of South Dakota, led diversity training at the time. In an interview, Sellers, who is Black, said he never told people they couldn’t say certain things. He sought to create spaces where all voices and identities could be respected. There was never a point, he said, where people weren’t allowed to speak up.

Even so, Sellers knew that some lawmakers and others believed that diversity officials were stifling conservative voices. After the law took effect, Sellers said he made a concerted effort to comply.

He reached out to student groups, including the College Republicans — whom he said he received no response from — and others for ideas on how to more intentionally include intellectual diversity in his office’s programs. Before the pandemic hit, he said, he was making some headway with a lecture series. Still, he couldn’t get over the fact that the legislature’s decision to prioritize intellectual diversity seemed redundant.

A black woman is seen standing infront of a wooden door in an office setting. She is using a key to unlock the door. Closer to the photographer, a small chalkboard on the wall bears a message reading “Be patient with yourself. Nothing in nature blooms all year.”

for the Chronicle

Dyanis Conrad enters her office for the last time after six years of working at South Dakota State U.

Many state leaders don’t think about diversity in the same way that Sellers does. Most of South Dakota’s legislators are white and Republican. In the sparsely populated state, 84 percent of residents are white. While the state has nine Native tribes, all belonging to the Great Sioux Nation, which make up 9 percent of the population, they have little representation in positions of power.

South Dakota’s government has had a fraught relationship with sovereign Native tribes for years. At one point, Noem was banned from the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Pine Ridge Reservation for her support of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Tribal leaders have also criticized Noem for opposing public-health restrictions during the pandemic, which hit Native communities hard, and for removing aspects of Native history from the state’s K-12 curriculum standards last year.

Noem has consistently aligned herself with former President Donald J. Trump. When Trump said in 2020 that he wanted the nation’s schools to reject the “1619 Project” and embrace “patriotic education,” she heeded his call. She set out to eradicate critical race theory from the state’s educational system — including universities.

Noem has claimed that critical race theory is an “inherently divisive concept” that makes students feel “discomfort” or “guilt” because of their identity.

Her critics argue otherwise.

“Divisive for whom?” Conrad said.

It’s not divisive for Black families. It’s not divisive for Native families,” she said. “So who exactly are you referring to? Who are you trying to protect and why?”

In a statement after signing a bill that banned “divisive concepts” in March, Noem said that “no student or teacher should have to endorse critical race theory in order to attend, graduate from, or teach at our public universities.” She continued: “College should remain a place where freedom of thought and expression are encouraged, not stifled by political agendas.”

Noem’s office referred The Chronicle to her previous statements on critical race theory. A spokesperson didn’t respond to follow-up questions.

In their quest against political correctness and critical race theory on campuses, Noem and her Republican colleagues have also landed on another enemy: campus diversity offices.

In 2018, before Noem became governor, lawmakers began interrogating the need for diversity offices. At the University of South Dakota, Sellers said the institution received lots of questions from lawmakers concerning the office’s budget, its size, and its programming.

South Dakota wasn’t the only state questioning campus diversity offices. Around the same time, Sellers spoke with a colleague who’d recently quit as the vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Tennessee’s legislature had defunded UT-Knoxville’s diversity office for a year, amid Republican outrage over gender-neutral pronouns. Now South Dakota’s legislature wanted to do the same thing.

The legislature was gearing up to try to pass a bill to defund the state’s diversity offices. The bill died in committee, but it was “the first shot over the bow” at diversity, equity, and inclusion work at the state’s universities, said Sellers.

He and his colleagues never actually spoke with any of the people who were behind the legislation. “As long as I was there, there was never any real conversation about what was going on, what we were doing, and how we were going about doing it,” he said.

A man and woman paint gray over a rainbow-colored map of South Dakota

Valerie Chiang for The Chronicle, photos from Getty Images

In 2021, the issue resurfaced. Noem sent a letter to South Dakota’s Board of Regents railing against diversity offices. Then the board motioned to eliminate them altogether.

The board issued an official policy statement rejecting the idea that “any individual person is responsible for actions taken by other people.” The statement continued: “We also reject, and will not promote, any suggestion that one group of people is inherently superior or inferior to another group, or is inherently oppressive or immoral.”

Noem wrote in a statement that diversity offices had become “less about serving students and more about advancing leftist agendas.”

Institutions would be given six months to implement what the board called “opportunity centers” or risk a fine.

And so the state’s six public universities got to work. Opportunity centers debuted this spring semester. Per the board’s directive, they now serve as a one-stop shop for students to access campus resources.

“Opportunity centers, formerly known as diversity offices, serve as an umbrella organization for the array of student support services, offices, and efforts already underway on campus, coordinating resources to ensure each student has access to what they need to succeed,” Shuree Mortenson, a spokesperson for the Board of Regents, wrote in an email.

The multicultural-affairs offices, located within the student-services arm of the opportunity center, provide much of what the diversity offices previously provided, Mortenson said. “The name change removed no diversity services or programming at South Dakota’s state universities,” she said. The University of South Dakota and South Dakota State didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Bailey Biegler was worried when she learned the opportunity center was going to replace the diversity office at South Dakota State University. Biegler, who graduated in May, feared that campus spaces offering education and services to underrepresented groups would be affected.

So far, the opportunity center hasn’t disrupted how most student organizations operated, Biegler said. Until recently, she was the president of South Dakota State’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance.

The student group provides queer students with a safe space to be themselves and educates the campus community about LGBTQ issues. They host speakers and hold regular events, one of which took place in March, a drag show that received a large turnout. “We were a little anxious that people would make a scene, but everybody was very well-behaved and respectful,” she said.

At the opportunity center, students can ask questions about what groups are on campus. But it still feels like something is missing, Biegler said. Without the diversity office, the groups won’t get as much support — such as advising, mentoring, and help bringing in guests — from faculty and staff members, Biegler said.

Diversity offices did more than what opportunity centers have been charged with, several administrators and faculty members said. They looked at equity across campus by recognizing that some groups may need access to different resources to achieve the same things as their peers. They looked at their institutions on a macro level — at how policies affect not only racial and ethnic minorities, but LGBTQ students, first-generation students, students with disabilities, and veteran students.

Then they collaborated with university leaders on campuswide solutions — for instance, advertising inclusive restrooms on university websites so that people don’t have to out themselves by asking, and organizing food pantries for students who don’t have enough to eat.

The current and former professors and administrators interviewed by The Chronicle say they still want diversity and inclusion training, but that’s harder to do these days because of the new state laws. They say that’s why so much talent is leaving the state. It’s going to be hard for universities to recruit talent in South Dakota’s political climate. They fear students will start leaving next.

Sellers left the University of South Dakota in 2019, shortly after the state’s attacks on diversity offices began. He said he couldn’t handle the stress of it all.

The director of South Dakota State’s American Indian Student Center left last fall.

More have left since.

A black woman stands outside next to a moving box, looking in the distance. One hand is on her hip. The other hand rests atop the box. Behind her is a silver station wagon.

Layn Mudder LPT Images/for the Chronicle

Dyanis Conrad is moving across the country to Virginia, where she’ll be teaching at Randolph-Macon College

State laws and policies won’t change what Conrad will teach her students, the future teachers.

“There’s a clear lack of equity across U.S. schooling,” she said. “When you go through that whole process of looking at what we can do better, looking at inequities, and then looking at why those inequities have developed, you cannot avoid the conversation of race.”

The University of South Dakota’s School of Education is a nationally accredited program, and prioritizing diversity is a required part of that accreditation, she added.

But the state’s actions have affected what she does outside of the classroom.

She said she has had a more difficult time applying for funding from the university in certain cases. “No one wants to touch anything that has to do with diversity and equity — work that is in conflict with current legislation and the governor’s office,” she said.

Conrad said administrators seem to have drawn an unspoken line between what kinds of diversity are acceptable. In her experience, it’s pretty easy to receive funding to support veterans’ services on campus, or to hire ASL interpreters for events. But on more than one occasion, she’s had to frame grant requests for cultural events differently and without reference to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

At the University of South Dakota, several events had to have their names changed or were canceled entirely, Conrad said. Every year the university holds a dinner for Native American alumni. Now the people involved have to be careful in how they advertise it, Conrad said, because “if we put the word Native in front of it, it makes it look like preferential treatment is being given to Native people.” A university spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about the institution’s approach to awarding funding and naming events.

Conrad said it’s exhausting to have to be in that as space as a queer woman of color without any support. Others share those sentiments. Many people have supported her privately, but they’re not going to throw their families or careers under the bus by supporting her publicly.

This month, Conrad is leaving the university. She’s moving across the country to Virginia, where she’ll be teaching at Randolph-Macon College.

But she’s going to keep fighting for colleagues and students of color in South Dakota who feel they’re being attacked. She plans to host professional-development and speaking events across the state, focused on equity and inclusion in the curriculum.

“It’s my son’s home,” she said. Her son was concerned about leaving his friends that might be considered different — whether that was because of their race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. “He made me promise that I would keep working to help them be safe, and so that if he wants to come back to be a Coyote [the college’s mascot], he would also be safe.”

Meanwhile, some professors who remain in South Dakota say they wonder whether diversity can continue to be an institutional value when “diversity” isn’t supposed to be talked about anymore.

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