Regents, with a new executive, signal new direction to legislators for S.D. universities

Capitol News Bureau
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PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota’s public universities have fallen short on many of the academic performance goals that the state Board of Regents set six years ago.

That’s according to a report that several officials delivered Tuesday to the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee.

But in some key areas, such as STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — graduates, the 2014-2020 goals have been exceeded. “We’re heading in the right direction,” Janice Minder said. She is the universities system’s vice president for academic policy and planning.

On affordability, however, South Dakota public campuses haven’t improved and remain in sixth place compared to seven neighboring states, according to Minder.

She said the regents and the six universities’ staff and students “can’t be thankful enough” for several new scholarships, including the needs-based South Dakota Freedom program. The Legislature this year appropriated $50 million toward a $200 million private-public Freedom endowment.

The regents chose Brian Maher as the system’s latest executive director 11 months ago. The retired Sioux Falls School District superintendent was the first South Dakota resident in decades.

The Legislature last year approved Senate Bill 55 creating a task force to review the state universities for potential efficiencies.

Maher told lawmakers Tuesday that the SB 55 report that’s due in November will also serve “in large part” as the regents’ compass in the years ahead. He guaranteed the regents’ next strategic plan will be “very well-informed” by the SB 55 work.

The regents didn’t renew the contract of Northern State University president Tim Downs earlier this year. A search is in progress for his successor.

Governor Kristi Noem recently appointed three new regents — former lawmakers Jeff Partridge of Rapid City and Tim Rave of Baltic, along with her former chief of staff Tony Venhuizen of Sioux Falls — to the nine-member board.

The universities presentation came as Noem announced Tuesday that she had sent a letter to the state universities calling for “honest, patriotic education.”

One of the points she raised was whether “funds are being used to advance or promote the 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, or any similar theory; or requiring, compelling, or otherwise directing students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to any such beliefs or tenets.”

Many Republicans in elected offices throughout the nation have taken up opposition to Democrat U.S. President Joe Biden on a proposed history and civics grants program that holds up The New York Times 1619 Project as a positive example.

Representative Randy Gross said Tuesday he’d like to see a customer satisfaction survey of universities’ students and taxpayers. Maher responded that his comments “hit the mark” and are something that will be considered.

The GOAC chair, Senator Kyle Schoenfish, said the panel would hold off approving the regents’ performance report until Maher and others return in September.

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