A group of 25 Native American organizations in Twin Cities called on Friday for the immediate resignation of University of Minnesota Board of Regents Vice Chairman Steve Sviggum because he questioned whether the Morris campus was “too diversified”.
“We don’t get apologies these days,” said Joe Hobot, president of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors Group (MUID), which sent the letter. “Blurred statements and distraction are not tolerated. Your words matter and that is why we are calling for his immediate resignation.”
Reached by telephone, Sviggum, who lives in Kenyon, had not seen the letter but he had replied in one word to the call asking him to resign: “No”.
Hobot, who is also chairman of the president of the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center, one of MUID’s 25 member groups, spoke in a phone interview. In MUID’s letter to Regents Chairman Ken Powell and others, the group expressed “disgust and embarrassment at the openly racist and hostile remarks” by Sviggum.
Sviggum’s term on the board expires next year, but the letter is the strongest reaction yet to his comments.
More than a week ago, at a town hall meeting, Sviggum asked acting Morris Chancellor Janet Schrunk Ericksen if it was “at all possible from a marketing perspective” that the campus has become “too diverse”.
“I’ve had a few letters, two in fact, from friends whose kids won’t go to Morris because it’s too diverse,” Sviggum said at the meeting. “They just didn’t feel comfortable there.”
Ericksen replied that minority students on campus often feel isolated and that from their perspective, no, the campus would not be too diverse. On Wednesday, Sviggum apologized “unequivocally” in a letter released by the University of Minnesota’s public relations department.
Sviggum has spent much of his adult life as a public figure. He is a former Republican Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives. He worked as an executive assistant and director of communications for the state Senate GOP caucus and served as commissioner under Governor Tim Pawlenty.
In his apology, Sviggum said his intention was to encourage discussion about Morris’ listing, which is down 50% from its peak. “The future of this great campus depends on finding solutions to reverse this trend,” he wrote.
But Hobot said Sviggum’s message about fear of diversity reverberated through students on campus. He noted that Morris attracts Native American students because of its “fantastic” Native American studies program and free tuition.
Sviggum’s comments pointing to the Morris campus were a “dog whistle that cannot be excused by an inarticulate selection of words”.
Then there is the history of the campus. The Anishinaabe and Lakota peoples originally occupied the territory on which it stands.
The first buildings constructed on the site were for a Native American boarding school. The school operated from 1887 to 1909. When the school closed, the land was transferred to the state and it was stipulated that Native American students could attend tuition-free.
Hobot pointed out that campuses across the country are just beginning to come to terms with the cruel past. “These land-grant-based university institutions and systems not only have the momentum to provide equal opportunity and access, but they also need to reveal their history,” he said.
The brutal treatment of Native American students in boarding schools has just begun to surface, and the remains of more than 100,000 tribal members are estimated to be in the possession of American universities.
Last month, Harvard University agreed to return to their descendants the human remains of 19 people who were believed to have been enslaved. In August, tribal leaders traveled to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks to collect ancestor remains.
The MUID letter said there was no place on the university’s board of trustees for someone who “views campus diversity as a prejudice,” especially at Morris where Native American students enroll in greater numbers than elsewhere in the system.
As vice-chairman of the board, Sviggum knew of the large native population of the Morris campus or “is so removed from his responsibilities as regent that he suggests his cognitive abilities no longer possess the capacity necessary to serve on this advice”. According to the school, about 28% of on-campus enrollment of about 1,200 students last year were Native Americans.
The letter called on fellow Sviggum regents and university offices to “be consistent and intentional” with their “supposed commitment to diversity, equity, and equality among all Minnesotans.”
Louise Matson, executive director of the Indian Labor Division and vice president of MUID, also signed the letter.
Some of the other groups among the 25 of MUID are Ain Dah Yung Center, All Nations Indian Church, American Indian Community and Development Corporation, American Indian Family Center, Bois Forte Urban Office, Fond Du Lac Urban Office, Indian Health Board, MIGIZI Communications and the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
The university’s media office did not respond to a request for comment.