VERMILLION, S.D. —With a few minutes left at a Thursday, Oct. 15, campus meeting, state Board of Regents Executive Director Brian Maher gave University of South Dakota students an opportunity to ask any question under the sun.
And they had questions.
One student after another stood to question — often in emotional terms — the Regents' decision to shunt the campus diversity office in favor of so-called "opportunity centers" in a mid-summer fiat. One student observed neither Maher, nor USD President Sheila Gestring, nor any of the Board of Regents staff present, appeared to be using the words "diversity" or "racial equity" in their Thursday night presentation.
"Students don't see Regents on campus. They don't see legislators on campus, and the legislators listen to media outlets ... and decide what is happening at USD," said Rachel Overstreet, president of Tiospaye Student Council.
Another student asked, "Can the Board of Regents promise that the opportunity center will not take any resources from the [Center for Diversity and Community]?"
"I'm not here to make promises tonight," replied Maher.
Thursday evening was supposed to be the final of six meetings Regents staff have held on South Dakota's six public university campuses to explain — or offer floor space for grievances — about the machinations of their Senate Bill 55 report, a years-old campaign involving business leaders, legislators, and regents staff to cut costs that received the full BOR approval last week.
Thursday's event mostly resembled previous efforts, such as in Spearfish two weeks ago, when BOR staff outlined possible changes to human resources and investigating the possibility of a single food vendor. After prepared remarks, community members asked questions about funding for programs, about class sizes, about priorities.
"We do very well on a thin budget," observed Rob Turner, a languages professor. "But we are underfunded for an R-2 institution."
But with minutes to go before 8 p.m., in the second floor ballroom of the Muenster University Center, Maher invited questions on other topics, and students — many of whom attended a meeting last month to discuss changes to the Center for Diversity and Community — supplied them.
"South Dakota has actively made it not a safe place for diverse people," said Isabel Young, president of a campus LGBTQ organization. She was referring to comments about a "brain drain" invoked earlier in the evening by Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, who noted that over 60% of public college graduates in the state leave after school.
At one point, Bennett Clary, a reporter for campus newspaper The Volante peppered Maher with questions about the impetus for the opportunity centers.
"I don't know if it was an epiphany," responded Maher, characterizing the move as prompted by "the conversation that was going on in our nation."
The murky response drew more questions.
Toward night's end, psychology professor Cindy Struckman-Johnson observed "people are kind of terrorized here about the notion of prejudice going in and becoming policy" and reiterated a call from students that the BOR be explicit about the "conversation" Maher referenced.
The opportunity centers came in an announcement from the Board in early August, which also was proclaimed in a separate social media blast from Gov. Kristi Noem the same day she'd fought with antiracist scholar Ibram X. Kendi over Twitter. While SB 55 and the announcement were separate projects, as Maher noted, students and faculty on Thursday pointed out that both represent an ostensibly ideological intervention into campus learning by Pierre politicians.
Even at the night's outset, for example, a student quickly asked for clarification about Senate Bill 134, a measure passed by the legislature and signed by Noem earlier this year that drops higher environmental standards for new public buildings, including those on campuses.
At the time of the bill's introduction, a lobbyist knocked the electric charging stations included at the Education Department building.
On Thursday, Heather Forney, BOR's vice president of finance, defended the decision saying a LEED certification silver standard forced colleges to embrace sustainable practices they found impractical and costly.
"We were putting in native grasses," said Forney. "A lot of people think they're weeds."
Major supporters for SB 134, as well as SB 55 and the opportunity center announcement, included many of the over half-a-dozen legislators who sat in the crowd Thursday night. But no proponents of these measures spoke. Campus conversations, say administrators, will continue as the varying plans take shape.