For the past few years, conservative state policymakers have started destabilizing some of higher education’s most enduring tenets while imposing a rarely seen degree of control on public colleges, such as Florida defunding state institutions’ diversity efforts and Texas moving to do the same.
Now, another Republican governor — Kristi Noem, of South Dakota — seems to be signing on to this particular education blueprint. It’s one championed by the likes of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who relied on it to prepare for his 2024 presidential run, and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who used such tactics to take the governor’s mansion two years ago.
Noem — an acolyte of former President Donald Trump who has been floated as a White House contender herself — wrote to the South Dakota Board of Regents last week, pushing for a host of policy changes at the state’s six public universities in line with those conservatives are demanding nationwide.
She wants the public colleges, which collectively enroll more than 33,600 students, to enact rules fortifying free speech while also banning drag performances on their campuses and references to preferred pronouns.
While the regent board has no obligation to follow Noem’s requests, the governor appoints its members. And public colleges’ governing boards often can’t ignore the will of politicians who control purse strings.
A spokesperson for the regent board did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
A conservative vision for South Dakota colleges
State lawmakers set benchmarks for public higher education all the time, but they tend to revolve around goals like lower tuition or higher graduation rates.
In her letter last week, Noem outlined her expectations around student success, calling for the regents to cut college costs and boost the six public institutions’ average graduation rate from 47% to at least 65% by 2028. The governor’s office calculated the 47% figure from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, a public database of federally funded institutions’ graduation rates and student earnings.
But she also had a broader wishlist. Noem wants the regents to abolish rules restricting students’ free speech, though public institutions must already uphold the First Amendment.
She cited a recent dustup at Black Hills State University, one of South Dakota’s public colleges. A civil liberties watchdog had criticized the university for maintaining a policy that it could remove “objectionable” people from its campus. Black Hills State removed the policy after the organization complained.
Another free speech threat, Noem wrote, is the state’s public colleges having “all but required students to provide and adhere to ‘preferred pronouns.’” The letter did not cite examples of specific language being forced on students, but Noem argued use of preferred pronouns creates an “exclusive environment.”
Noem asked the regents to eliminate references to preferred pronouns in colleges’ materials. Her request matches similar conservative attacks against transgender people and the concept of gender identity nationwide. Lawmakers have sought to ban instruction of LGBTQ+ topics in K-12 schools and prohibit transgender athletes from playing on teams matching their gender identities.
Conservatives have also delivered broadsides against drag culture, aiming to limit when and under what circumstances such performances can occur. They have made claims, without evidence, that drag shows harm young children.
One form of free expression Noem herself is seeking to restrict are drag shows. She wrote “gender theory” should be debated in classrooms “but not celebrated through public performances on taxpayer-owned property at taxpayer-funded schools.”
The governor also made requests about college donations and curricula choices.
She asked that public universities require classes in American history and government as part of students’ general education course load, in line with the conservative campaign to emphasize U.S. culture and civic duty.
And public colleges should also review their donations to ensure they do not come from Chinese entities, Noem wrote.
Bipartisan concerns about Chinese influence in American institutions have swelled in recent years. Colleges’ foreign donations took front and center during the Trump administration, which prioritized enforcement of a law that mandates colleges report gifts from other nations worth $250,000 or more in a calendar year.
Since Trump left office, states have taken interest in more deeply monitoring — and sometimes restricting — colleges’ donations from China and other countries.
What’s the likelihood these policies pass?
South Dakota’s regent board has not publicly responded to Noem’s demands, but she has some sway over the members.
Governors tend to appoint board members who align with their political ideologies.
This power has been on full display in places like North Carolina and Florida.
North Carolina Republicans dominate the statehouse and have installed conservative board members for more than a decade. In Florida, DeSantis has stacked the board of New College of Florida, a public liberal arts institution, with like-minded individuals. They have since radically reshaped New College’s operations, firing the former college president and ending diversity initiatives.
The South Dakota regents appear to have bent to conservative political pressures before.
An LGBTQ student organization at South Dakota State University sponsored a drag show there late last year, angering state Republicans. After lawmakers publicly derided the show, the regents this month issued a policy that only allows non-student minors to attend university events if they are supervised.
Then there’s the risk of South Dakota losing state funding.
Like all public colleges, those in South Dakota balance their budgets with state support. This money is particularly important for colleges now as the economy recovers from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and federal coronavirus relief runs dry.
And Noem has already seemingly affected higher education policy. After she railed publicly against diversity programs, she issued an executive order converting campus diversity offices into “opportunity centers,” despite student and faculty pushback.
Already, her office last week set up a “whistleblower” hotline for reporting concerns at public colleges, borrowing an idea that has been tried elsewhere.
In Virginia, a tip line for reporting “divisive practices” in K-12 public schools was shut down. The Virginia governor’s office said it was taken down because it received little interest at the time, though public records show it was flooded with complaints outside of those related to diversity or inclusion.
Noem wrote in her letter to the regents that information gleaned from the state’s hotline will guide policy decisions going forward.
“Together, we can and must set an example to the nation of what strong, conservative higher education can look like,” Noem wrote.