The University of South Dakota in Vermillion (Courtesy Photo)

Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

Today’s Roadmap

01: Postcards: Culture wars enter the university inbox.
02: Roadside Attractions: What counts as a rural college?

01: Postcards

Battles over diversity, equity, and inclusion are playing out on campuses across the country. Fourteen states, most of them with large rural populations, have outright banned DEI offices since 2023, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

Here’s one under-the-radar consequence: Human Resources staff at the University of South Dakota told two administrators that they could be fired for language in their email signatures.

John Little and Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, who both work in student services roles, said in a statement last week that they were forced to remove their gender pronouns and tribal affiliation from their university email signatures.

The cause of the sudden threat to their livelihoods? A guidance the Board of Regents passed in December that restricts all employees in the state’s public higher education system in what they can include in their official communications. It outright bans inclusion of any information outside of the sender’s name, email/physical addresses, telephone number(s), and links to the institution’s website.

Students and faculty alike have protested the signature policy. The student government passed a resolution condemning it in February, noting that the policy came just months after previous calls for South Dakota universities to remove pronouns from communications and is “unnecessarily restricting the speech of University employees.” 

“There is a general sentiment from people on campus that the policy is very heavy handed and creates more issues than benefits for the university,” says sophomore Sam Markley, the government affairs chair for the student government.

Nearly 1 in 10 people in South Dakota identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native, and the university boasts having “over 30 tribal nations represented on campus.” 

Little and Red Shirt-Shaw had included tribal affiliations in their signatures before the guidance because it makes sense for their work. Little is the director of Native Recruitment and Shirt-Shaw is director of Native Student Services.

They raised the issue publicly for the first time last week, although the conversation with HR took place back in March. Both declined to speak with Open Campus more, saying they would need to consult with their legal counsel more before doing any interviews.

Since receiving a written warning,  Little and Red Shirt-Shaw have decided to adjust their signatures. (They continue to include that information in the body text of their emails, and say they were told doing so wouldn’t be challenged by the university or regents as of now.) 

Little said in a statement published on X.com (formerly Twitter) that he felt saddened that the Board of Regents “continues the erasure of Native people in the state of South Dakota.” 

He made the decision to remove his signature in part because a suspension would have kept him from attending campus events, including the 12th Annual Native Alumni Dinner, which featured four Native women discussing their experiences at USD a half century ago.

“It was amazing to hear their power and strength in overcoming the racism and difficulties at USD during the 1970s, but also sad to realize that South Dakota continues to limit how we can identify ourselves,” Little said.

The net effect of the policy, critics say, is that South Dakota has managed to ban administrators putting gender pronouns and tribal affiliations in their signatures without having to, well, explicitly say that they are targeting LGBTQ and tribal identities.

Critics of the policy say it effectively targets administrators with LGBTW and tribal identities, creating an atmosphere where they may feel unwelcome. The University of South Dakota didn’t respond to our request for comment.

 The USD Board of Regents did not respond to specific questions asked about the policy, but replied by saying that although employees may have “additional information they would like to share,” it was “critical” to identify consistent parameters for official communication as an employer.

“While supplemental contextual information can offer value in certain instances, consistent criteria for communications are necessary to safeguard our universities’ missions and interests,” Shuree Mortenson, director of communications, said.

The policy comes on the heels of other controversial actions, including a Board of Regents decision to replace its diversity offices with “opportunity centers” in 2022.

“There’s a part of me that feels like this is a way of getting back at tribal peoples,” says Cheryl Crazy Bull, a member of the Sicangu Lakota nation in South Dakota and current president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund. 

“I feel like I am in the multiverse,” said Crazy Bull, who is also a USD graduate.

On one hand, she sees “a very robust national conversation” from many in higher education about “equity, inclusion, and finding pathways for Native people,” including some states agreeing to offer in-state tuition for Native students, among other perks meant to enhance Native enrollment.

Yet there has also been a simultaneous and noticeable shift in anti-diversity legislation and policies coming from what Crazy Bull calls “a minority with great influence,” who she describes as having a mindset of “let me erase you, let me pretend you don’t need support, let me forget the history, and the value of doing reparative and restorative work.” 

There will likely be more of a response from Native organizations nationwide in the coming weeks, as more information comes out, Crazy Bull told me. In the meantime, she is calling for other groups to join Native communities in solidarity to advocate for a more inclusive signature policy.

“The part of me that wants to protest makes me think that everyone should put their ancestry and heritage and pronouns in their emails,” Crazy Bull says. “It shouldn’t just be Native people who feel like this targets them. Our allies should say: “I think I’ll put that I’m German, and I’d like to be known by they/them.”

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Kentucky mulls expanding education in coal country. Kelly Field of the Hechinger Report writes about Kentucky’s consideration of a feasibility study to transform Hazard Community and Technical College into a four-year residential university, spurred by concerns that low college access is holding back rural parts of the state.
  • What counts as a rural college? The Chronicle of Higher Education asks the question in this video (Full disclosure: The piece is part of a project backed by Ascendium, which also provides funding for this newsletter. Read more about our editorial independence policy here).

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Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.