South Dakota public universities are switching up diversity efforts, officials tell lawmakers

Capitol News Bureau

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee generally expressed support Wednesday as two top officials representing the state Board of Regents explained how South Dakota’s public universities are shifting their diversity efforts.

The six campuses are installing what the regents call “opportunity centers” that replace diversity offices and serve as central starting points for helping students with individual needs.

The change comes after some Republican legislators and Republican Governor Kristi Noem made clear in recent months their opposition to critical race theory before it can spread through the system of six state universities. Noem has directly criticized Ibram X. Kendi, a proponent of the 40-year-old legal approach.

“We have taken the matter very seriously over the last several months,” Brian Maher, the regents’ executive director, told lawmakers Wednesday.

Nathan Lukkes, the regents’ legal counsel, said the process started four to five months ago. He said the new centers will look at every student as an individual and the plan is “still a work in progress.”

The regents adopted a statement and approach at their August meeting. Lukkes said that was step one. Officials from the six campuses are now developing plans that the regents will consider at their October meeting. Lukkes said there could be further action at the regents’ December meeting.

“It will look different on each of the campuses,” Lukkes said. He emphasized the approach won’t be one size fits all.

Maher said the three newest regents appointed by the governor — former legislators Tim Rave and Jeff Partridge and one of her past chiefs of staff, Tony Venhuizen — worked with the six university presidents and Lukkes and Maher in developing the statement and approach.

The universities now will have direct lines of communications between the heads of the opportunity centers and the campus presidents, according to Maher.

Support for the regents’ new efforts was voiced from co-chair Chris Karr and many others on the 18-member committee such as Taffy Howard, Margaret Sutton, Jack Kolbeck, Steven Haugaard, Brock Greenfield, Tina Mulally and Mary Fitzgerald.

Representative Randy Gross said discrimination is defined as differentiating and asked Lukkes how he defined discrimination. Lukkes said he focuses on illegal discrimination.

Lukkes noted that state law provides for various preferences in hiring and tuition for armed forces veterans and the universities have worked to be more inclusive to Native American students. He said those efforts would continue.

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