The Politics of Being Included at the University of South Dakota

Is the University of South Dakota kidding itself with its diversity statement “everyone belongs”? The last several years’ news articles, diversity reports, letters to the editor, opinion pieces, documentary films, racist incidents, and student frustration should have caught the eye of the casual observer. The problems many have addressed are not new, but have been going on for the past twelve years.

For reaccreditation in 2001, the Higher Learning Commission required USD to submit a diversity monitoring report by June 1, 2004 and a progress report by June 1, 2006. Responding to the lack of diverse student, staff, and faculty populations that the two reports highlighted, USD’s administration created the Office of Diversity and the position of Chief Diversity Officer. The Officer position, since 2005, has experienced high turnover. In fact, the position has been filled by an interim going on three years with no announcement of a permanent hire.

To observe USD’s hiring freeze because of the 2008 economic crisis, USD probably won’t fill the position. They have other priorities. Despite the freeze athletic coaching salaries increased and new coaching staff hired. Overall, the athletic budget in 2012 was increased by $4 million to facilitate increased salaries and scholarships.

Amidst the athletic budget increases, Native Studies (formally American Indian Studies) was granted departmental status. But the two faculty members of the department eventually left, leaving two unfilled positions. Since their departure, the department has been reduced to program status with nine “faculty affiliates.” Evacuating the Native Studies department’s institutional resources also required farming out teaching responsibility to other departments in Arts and Sciences.

This is where the finger pointing began.

In a June 2013 article in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Provost Chuck Staben stated that USD administration allowed the department to move forward. It was, according to Staben, the proposed Native Studies departmental model that resulted in its failure. Apparently, a PhD in biochemistry qualifies Staben to make pedagogical critiques of Native Studies. If anything, Staben’s tenure as Provost since 2008 bears witness to the failure of USD to effectuate positive diversity initiatives. Now many students wanting to finish degrees in the Native Studies program have wasted tens of thousands of dollars on the promise of receiving a quality education.

So what is USD doing with diversity? And what is diversity doing for USD?

Go to any page on the USD Office of Diversity website and you will see brown faces and what looks like a vibrant and diverse student body. The webpage sells the university as being programmatically diverse, even listing Native Studies as an academic resource. Of the six academic offices and programs, three specifically target Native populations. Moreover, all three cultural centers on campus deal specifically with Native peoples.

USD student body demographics, however, tell a different story. According to the 2010 Census, Native people make up 8.5% of South Dakota’s population. Whites make up 84.7% of the population. The enrollment for 2013 counted 175 Native undergraduates and undergraduates, making Native students barely 2% of the 10,235 total student population. White students make up just over 85% of the population, accurately reflecting the overall state population. Ideally, if the Native student population reflected the state population, there would be about 870 Native students at USD. Even if the ideal population just reflected the in-state student population (6,768), there would still be 575 Native students, almost triple the current student body.

In a 2011 reaccreditation self-study, only 10 (almost 3%) of the 361 full-time faculty were Native. An accurate state representation would be 31 faculty. A further accurate representation of state populations would be that three USD senior administrators and one Board of Regent would be Native. As we know, this is not the case. But these numbers reveal the lack of diversity in the institutional hierarchy all the way up the chain.

USD is advertising the two faculty positions as such: “USD offers unique opportunities for interaction with tribal communities and for learning about indigenous history and life ways. Revitalization of the Native Studies major reflects USD’s commitment to inclusive excellence, and acknowledges its special responsibility to the tribal communities of South Dakota to value indigenous perspectives.”

Irony drips from these words. USD’s “special responsibility” to Native peoples is demonstrated in its failure beginning in 2001 to take seriously the Higher Learning Commission’s pressure to increase and further institutionalize diversity initiatives. In 2014 USD will receive another diversity progress report and the site team in charge warns that “USD cannot continue with the status quo.”

But, as demonstrated in the positions taken by Staben and other senior administrators, the status quo seems to be all USD knows. A healthy diversity initiative should be encouraged to critique institutional inequalities, not be a public relations initiative. Given the recent outrage about a Native family being mocked by white students and another instance of white student claiming he was “drunker than a 100 Indians,” anti-Indian racism and inequality at USD has to be addressed. Frequent finger pointing by USD officials is counter-productive and harmful towards students.

If USD is serious about addressing these institutional inequalities and Native Studies, it has yet to be proven administrators are anything but reactionary. It’s hard to speculate about whether USD wants a Native and diverse campus population. As an alumnus, I’m embarrassed that USD administrators continue to point fingers at Native Studies and Native students. Gutting institutional resources and departments demonstrates that USD doesn’t care, and, at best, thinks Native people are a problem that they don’t know how to fix.

As W. E. B. Dubois famously asked, “How does it feel to be a Problem?” As a student at USD, I often felt my presence was a problem. I can only imagine and empathize with students who are paying financially and emotionally for USD’s diversity follies. Changing these conditions is essential.

To the USD administrators, the past twelve years demonstrates little improvement of relations with Native communities. Maintaining the status quo is costing you students, faculty, and staff. As a public institution, USD deserves public scrutiny and attention about inequalities in student representation and lack of institutional support for diversity initiatives. A healthy institutional reform with new blood may be required, for the benefit of everyone. Failing to act is telling.

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5 Comments on “The Politics of Being Included at the University of South Dakota”

  1. Rachelle says:

    http://www.sdstate.edu/diversity/upload/Diversity-and-Inclusion-at-SDSU-A-Progress-Report.pdf

    According to state institution data, it looks like USD is doing a better job of reflecting the state population than SDSU, the largest university in the state of South Dakota.

    • Nick Estes says:

      I looked at that SDSU enrollment when writing this piece. The difference is a marginal half a percent (.5%). I agree, however, that representation across the board is lacking and something that also deserves attention.

  2. Seth says:

    Nicely written article. Perhaps a second piece on “How to Fix the Problem” would assist the powers at be that you are criticizing. Seeing the problem is less than half of the solution. I’d be interested to see enrollment and acceptance rates that help to better qualify the student population rates. I agree, certain funding allocations at USD are questionable and this is a topic that deserves more attention; however, finger pointing only goes so far.

    • Nick Estes says:

      Hi Seth,
      First of all, I never proposed solutions, nor do I intend to. “Fixing” the problem would require being in senior administration, something I’m not, obviously, apart of. Thank you for the comments, but, nonetheless, I’m in no position to make changes. Pointing out the problems does not require solutions, per se. Instead, I’m proposing that, if we take seriously the issue at hand, we must first of all understand how this system operates. This is critique, not problem-resolution.
      Nick

  3. Wambli Okeya says:

    As a USD graduate (BA ’97 & MA ’09) I can attest to some of what Mr. Estes is writing about, specifically the hostile environment that Native students are subjected to at USD and the sometimes callous indifference of staff and some faculty. Unfortunately the USD administration will continue to pay lip-service to this issue, part of a bigger issue of having a non-academic president (a lawyer, businessman, & failed politician) who runs the place along a business model. If it is any consolation the university I am presently at working on my Ph.D., diversity is just a big a joke, despite the large presence of an Native, African-American, & Hispanic population. I also have it on good authority, colleague & recent graduate of, a supposed liberal CA University that things aren’t much better there either. Still thank you Nick for speaking up and out, keep poking the bear.


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