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South Dakota Regents officials hear from Republican lawmakers over diversity centers, CRT

The Board of Regents chief executive and attorney took questions on Wednesday from lawmakers, some of whom called to mandate a "western civ" course and reconstitute "moral" learning rooted in a "Judeo-Christian" tradition.

Rep. Taffy Howard, Republican from Rapid City, listens to testimony as the South Dakota Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee meets at the state Capitol on Thursday, Jan 14. Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — Lawmakers holding the purse strings in South Dakota appeared mostly satiated Wednesday by a Board of Regents statement and action plan that officials promise will reconstitute diversity offices as "opportunity centers."

But indication grew at a Wednesday, Aug. 18, meeting of the interim appropriations committee that assurances from Board of Regents CEO Brian Maher and general counsel Nathan Lukkes about the depth of a four-page action plan released early this month were not enough for conservative lawmakers on the committee.

Some of those lawmakers appear on a determined path to eradicate Critical Race Theory and other multicultural programming, such as diversity offices, from the state's universities . The diversity offices are academic and co-curricular programs for groups that historically face lower retention rates.

"One of my children is at a graduate level, and I observed one of the classes, and I found it appalling what was said," said Rep. Steve Haugaard , R-Sioux Falls. "You have some professors at the university that need to be reined in. They need to go through some kind of training ...."

Haugaard later called for "Judeo-Christian" morality to be a curricular goal for the state's six public universities


He did not respond by deadline to an email inquiry from Forum News Service for more information.

Nevertheless, he was joined by many who seemed skeptical if the Board of Regents was going far enough to exert academic control over university classrooms and student learning.

Rep. Taffy Howard , R-Rapid City, pointedly asked Lukkes if the Regents could mandate a "western civ" course for all students.

"It sounds to me like that's a rejection of the Critical Race Theory," said Howard, pointing to this month's report. "But we know this is really entrenched in our universities ... the tentacles of the whole diversity, equity and inclusion ideology, which I would like to call 'woke ideology' has worked its way into so many facets of the higher education system. Are you going to be working at pulling that out where it is?"

Lukkes said he "didn't want to get in front of his skis," but suggested the Regents' statement was designed to "hit on your core concerns."

The attorney also added he'd prefer to not mandate a "western civ" course, but that officials were "exploring all options."

The table for Wednesday's contentious conversation was set two weeks ago, when a Board of Regents committee unveiled a plan that, among other changes, appears to do away with diversity centers in favor of so-called "opportunity centers." That committee included Maher, Lukkes, the six university presidents, and the three newest appointees to the board.

No committee action on the four-page Regents action plan was taken Wednesday. But Lukkes tried to thinly slice distinctions between the aforementioned centers, noting that schools would not "blow up what we currently do well."


Rather, he added, it would be the university system's goal to focus "holistically" on students, "making sure the needs of all students are equally regarded."

The system's chief, Maher, tried to reassure lawmakers that Regents, appointed by the governor, would also have greater latitude to receive and react to complaints from students and staff.

"We've taken some reporting levels out as to how this all gets unfolded going forward," Maher said.

Sioux Falls Democrat Sen. Reynold Nesiba , himself an economics professor at Augustana University, noted that last week's release of U.S. Census data reveals a dramatic rise in non-white populations in the state, particularly in Sioux Falls, and wondered if changes would foster an unwelcome environment at the state's universities.

The nuts and bolts of programming of these opportunity centers will vary campus-by-campus and not be known for months, Lukkes and Maher said. A series of town hall-like meetings will take place at the campuses this coming fall, with the Board of Regents ultimately adopting plans of action at a November meeting.

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