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Noem criticizes universities, issues series of ‘challenges’


Noem criticizes universities, issues series of ‘challenges’

May 25, 2023 | 7:02 pm ET
By Makenzie Huber
Noem criticizes universities, issues series of ‘challenges’
Gov. Kristi Noem speaks at the Calvin Coolidge Foundation conference at the Library of Congress on Feb. 17, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Gov. Kristi Noem challenged the South Dakota Board of Regents in a letter Thursday to “improve higher education” in the state through a range of suggestions.

Noem said she wants to bolster free speech, ban drag shows and the use of preferred pronouns on campuses, root out Chinese influence, require U.S. history and government classes, improve graduation rates and make higher education more affordable.

The board is a constitutionally established state entity that oversees the operation of the state’s public university system. Although Noem has appointed and reappointed six of the eight board members, she does not have direct control over board actions.

The board governs Black Hills State University, Dakota State University, Northern State University, South Dakota Mines, South Dakota State University, the University of South Dakota, the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, South Dakota Services for the Deaf, BHSU-Rapid City and USD-Sioux Falls.

Shuree Mortenson, spokesperson for the board, said the board has worked on several of the letter’s suggestions for years.

“This letter, along with our internal Strategic Plan and Senate Bill 55 Legislative Task Force, presents solutions to support the growth of South Dakota’s workforce through our public universities,” Mortenson said in an emailed statement. “As the public university system of South Dakota, our main goal is to prepare the next generation of leaders with the necessary skills to grow our state’s economy. We are fully committed to this mission.”

The task force Mortenson referenced was mandated by the Legislature in 2020 to study the operations and functions of higher education.

The South Dakota Board of Regents prepares to meet on Dec. 8, 2022, at South Dakota Mines in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/SD Searchlight)
The South Dakota Board of Regents prepares to meet on Dec. 8, 2022, at South Dakota Mines in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/SD Searchlight)

Roughly 47% of students enrolled at state public universities are graduating, Noem said, based on data from the U.S. Department of Education College Scoreboard. Board of Regents data, meanwhile, shows an average graduation rate among state institutions of roughly 59%.

Both percentages are lower than the 2020 national 63% graduation rate that Noem quoted from the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Countless students have been set up for failure – and charged tens of thousands of dollars for their trouble,” Noem wrote. “As a country, we should be ashamed of this. As a state, South Dakota can show the nation what quality higher education is supposed to look like.”

Noem challenged the board to raise graduation rates to 65% by 2028. She also encouraged the board to make college more affordable, though she did not suggest solutions in the letter.

The South Dakota Legislature froze tuition again during the 2023 session earlier this year, keeping tuition at the same rate it’s been for the past three years. U.S. history and government classes meet social studies graduation requirements for state schools, though the classes themselves are not required.

She also encouraged the board to partner with businesses for apprenticeship programs. The administration has made several efforts with its apprenticeship program to address workforce troubles that accompany South Dakota’s historically low unemployment rate. Apprentices work with one or more experienced employees as they move toward licensure in their chosen field and receive instruction beyond a typical on-the-job training.

Noem also wants to:

  • Remove references to preferred pronouns in school materials.
  • Review funding sources for university centers and donations to “ensure there is no money coming into our education system from China.”
  • Remove policies that prohibit students from exercising free speech rights.
  • Ban drag shows on university campuses.

Noem’s free speech and drag show directives may contradict one another, though, since drag shows, a form of live entertainment, are considered a form of free expression under the First Amendment as long as they are not obscene, according to the Free Speech Center.

The Board of Regents recently adopted a policy that, while not mentioning drag shows specifically, prohibits non-student minors from attending programs with “content that is patently offensive to prevailing community standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable material for minors.” The action was a response to controversy over a drag show at SDSU that a student group advertised as “kid friendly.”

Noem also announced she set up a “whistleblower hotline” for concerns about higher education.

“As governor, my duty is to protect the people of South Dakota, ensure that their tax burden remains low, and spend those taxpayer dollars wisely,” Noem said. “Together, we can and must set an example to the nation of what strong, conservative higher education can look like.”