The South Dakota Board of Regents meets on Oct. 5, 2023, at South Dakota Mines in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)
UPDATED 3:40 p.m. Central, 10/5/23
RAPID CITY — The board that oversees South Dakota’s public universities has requested control over the governor’s whistleblower hotline for higher education, but the Governor’s Office said there are “no planned changes.”
News of the request came from Jeff Partridge, a member of the Board of Regents, during a meeting Thursday on the South Dakota Mines campus in Rapid City.
“We’re hoping that will be heard and received as far as us taking that over in the near future,” he said.
Gov. Kristi Noem’s chief of communications, Ian Fury, provided the following written statement to South Dakota Searchlight later Thursday afternoon.
“The whistleblower hotline has been extremely effective to make sure that concerns are heard and hopefully addressed by the Board of Regents,” the statement said. “There are no planned changes in how the hotline is being administered at this time. The Governor’s Office will continue to run the whistleblower hotline and make sure it serves the people of South Dakota and our kids and grandkids.”
The Governor’s Office manages the hotline and passes information to the universities. Partridge said the universities could manage the hotline in a more timely, efficient and effective manner, because they already have staff and offices accustomed to fielding complaints and requests for help.
Noem launched the hotline in May to “help keep our institutions accountable,” she said at the time in a letter to the regents. The letter also said higher education is in “a state of crisis” because “many states have allowed liberal ideologies to poison their universities and colleges.”
The letter called on the regents to raise graduation rates, remove all references to preferred personal pronouns in school materials, prohibit drag shows on university campuses, cut costs to increase affordability for students, and require a course in American history, among other suggestions.
Regents Executive Director Nathan Lukkes addressed some of those topics during Thursday’s meeting.
Depression, pronouns, drag shows, civics
Regarding complaints to the hotline that have “got some public attention,” Lukkes said that in some instances, “as we’ve dug into things even with information coming directly from the individuals complaining, we found that the allegations as initially represented simply weren’t accurate.”
Lukkes said a hotline caller falsely alleged that Black Hills State University in Spearfish encouraged students at orientation to take anti-depression medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.
“As it turns out, SSRIs were never actually mentioned during the orientation,” Lukkes said.
On preferred pronouns, Lukkes said the board has an established position and guidance.
“We do not require preferred pronouns, nor should we or our staff be putting students on the spot asking them to say their preferred pronouns,” Lukkes said. “But to be clear, we also do not prohibit the use of preferred pronouns if students so choose.”
The board approved a new policy on minors last spring in response to criticism about a drag show at South Dakota State University in Brookings that was promoted by a student group as “kid friendly.” The policy does not ban drag shows, but bars non-student youth from attending programs that include “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.”
Lukkes cited an upcoming event at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion as evidence that the policy is working.
“That event is advertised as ‘may contain mature content, and is for attendees 18 or over,’” Lukkes said, “just as the board intended.”
Shifting to controversies about the content of classroom education, Lukkes recommended, and the board approved, changing a global citizenship and diversity course in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at SDSU from a required to an optional course for students in the college. Lukkes also announced an exploration of a potential civics literacy graduation requirement for the university system, with a goal of presenting a proposal to the board in December.
“In the end, we all benefit from an informed and engaged citizenry,” Lukkes said.
Sexual violence concerns, gun policies
The topic of sexual violence arose twice during the meeting. Lukkes addressed complaints about a sexual violence training video used at SDSU, saying he’d reviewed it and “would not categorize the video as graphic or highly sexual.”
Later, Regent Tim Rave discussed “several reports in the media about sexual assaults on campus.”
Rave said the regents “have spoken with the presidents about this at length,” and “everything that can be done to protect students is currently in place.”
“I would personally call on all state’s attorneys to prosecute folks that are deserving to the fullest extent of the law,” Rave said, “and make sure that these kids know that it’s wrong. You don’t sexually assault someone, and we’re not going to tolerate it.”
Some South Dakota Mines students aired further safety concerns during the public comment portion of the meeting. A contingent of students came to the meeting holding signs bearing pro-gun rights slogans, and some asked the board for policy changes that would allow them to carry guns on campus.
Annaliese Wollman, a Mines senior, said hundreds of students signed a petition supporting the effort. Without the right to carry guns, she said, “students are left defenseless to everyday dangers on campus.”
The regents took no action, but Rave thanked the students for their civility and Lukkes expressed a willingness to meet with them.
“I’m more than happy to sit down and have an engaged, productive conversation to hear your issues and concerns and figure out what options may or may not be available moving forward,” Lukkes said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated since its original publication with the addition of a statement from the governor’s chief of communications.
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