PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota's Gov. Kristi Noem released a scathing letter Tuesday, May 25, to the Boards of Regent, who oversee the state's public university system, warning them that South Dakotan "will soon face many of the same forces that have wrecked other states' education systems" lest the public colleges recommit to what she called "honest, patriotic" education.
The letter criticizes the Biden administration's grant funding for civics education, and calls for students to achieve a "profound love of country."
"I would ask you whether the time is now — before national trends threaten to overtake our state — for the Board of Regents to set policy that is appropriate and tailored for South Dakota and her citizens," urged Noem, listing concerns about regental institutions promoting so-called "action civics" and campus diversity offices engaging in "mission creep."
Noem's notice comes just weeks after a columnist in a prominent conservative publication accused her administration of allowing liberal notions of American history to seep into an ongoing, routine standards review — charges the Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson rejected at a meeting last week.
In fact, days after Sanderson faced an education committee, she filed comments with the U.S Department of Education decrying a grant that incentives funding for projects that engages with racism in America's past in the mold of The New York Times's 1619 Project, which won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary but has drawn criticism from some historians for inaccuracies.
"No student should be victimized or held responsible for actions by former generations," Sanderson wrote in comments filed last week with the Biden administration.
State Historian Ben Jones in the comments critiqued "post-modern" philosophers and asked, "[w]hy is the [U.S. Education] Department advocating the racist ideas of Ibram X. Kendi?"
Kendi, a historian and author of several books on U.S. history and racism, leads the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University.
Public relations offices for South Dakota State University and the University of South Dakota did not respond to requests for comment for this story. In an email, Noem's spokesman Ian Fury wrote "[t]he letter speaks for itself."
Reached by phone on Tuesday, May 25, after he'd reviewed the letter and news release, University of South Dakota associate professor and director of International Studies Tim Schorn said, "I would say that the letter does not speak for itself."
"It does start to interfere with academic freedom and intellectual freedom because there's really only one way for the governor's plan to manifest itself: and that would be through required curriculum," said Schorn, who said he's never seen "worse" antagonism between the higher education faculty and the state's political leaders in over a quarter-century of teaching in South Dakota.
"Gov. [Bill] Janklow always had some bouts," added Schorn, "But I didn't think that he ever was talking directly to the people who were teaching at the universities."
On Tuesday, before the legislative Government Operations & Audit committee, Regents staff did not address Tuesday's letter, but they did address lower-than-expected graduation production and attraction of research and investment dollars.
Nick Estes, a University of New Mexico assistant professor in American Studies and author of "Our History Is the Future," a book on the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, grew up in South Dakota and told FNS on Tuesday that so-called "patriotic education" is "fundamentally about celebrating the United States in a way that is uncritical, that doesn't do anyone justice."
"I didn't learn anything about Native history [in public school] until I came to USD [as an undergraduate]," added Estes, who is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.
Estes said that Noem's invocation of ideas linked with the 1776 Commission, a committee assembled under the Trump administration seen by some conservatives as a ballast to the 1619 Project, as "indoctrination into flag worship and blind nationalism."
"This whole movement toward 'patriotic education' is a way to coerce schools and universities, and its' doing the very thing it's accusing the 1619 Project and that's being a politically laden agenda," Estes said.
While many of Noem's stated concerns may rest in academic philosophy, her comment about "mission creep" of campus diversity offices dovetails with legislators' concerns aired over the course of various budget-cutting meetings this spring. That task force, stemming from Senate Bill 55, meets again in June.