A Drop of Ink: Education Requires Exposure To Diversity
By Reed Anfinson
“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
We clearly recall the late August day we were dropped off at Frontier Hall on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus. It was a men’s dorm housing 400 students from all over the United States and the world.
Our twin brother moved into a room a few doors down with a roommate who was a Black football player from Chicago. In his second year, his roommate was South Korean. We ended up with a roommate from Norway who would have friends from other nations stop by to visit. He would also take us to international student events.
Two small-town western Minnesota kids who turned 18 years old that June were instantly immersed in a world far more diverse than the one in which they had grown up. Their experiences at the U of M became a critical part of their education.
Needing a job to help pay for our education and spending money, we applied at a clothing store in Dinkytown on the edge of the U’s campus. We were hired and soon learned the manager was gay. We worked there for three years.
After graduating from the U’s main campus with a degree in journalism, we eventually returned to Benson. For a young man, it was a place with few people our own age. Fortunately, 24 miles away was the U of M’s Morris campus. We enrolled in a class to get to know other young people. Anwar Faruqi, a student from Pakistan who had also attended the international school in Tehran, Iran, became one of our best friends.
Each of those encounters at the U of M campuses broadened our world with rich experiences. Each one taught us skills we use to navigate a changing and more diverse world. The experiences now cause us to be deeply troubled by the recent disparaging words of U of M Board of Regent’s Vice Chair Steve Sviggum about the Morris campus.
At the Oct. 13 board of regent’s meeting, Sviggum raised a question implying the Morris campus’ declining enrollment in recent years could be because its student population was too diverse.
“Is it possible that at Morris, we’ve become too diverse? Is that possible, all from a marketing standpoint?” Sviggum asked Morris campus Acting Chancellor Janet Schrunk Ericksen.
In justifying the question, he referred to “a couple letters” from friends who chose not to enroll their kids at the U of M’s Morris campus out of a concern for its diverse student population. “They just didn’t feel comfortable there,” Minnesota Public Radio quotes him.
Since the 2017-18 school year, the U of M Morris’ student population has fallen by one-third, from 1,554 students to 1,024. To put the decline in complete perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, with its severe disruption of campus life continuing today.
At one time, the Morris campus was the home of a boarding school for Native Americans. Today, that history allows Native students who qualify to attend the U of M Morris without paying tuition. Native American students make up about one-third of the student population.
Black, Asian, Hispanic and non-Native students make up about 10% of the student population, with Whites accounting for 54%. The White student population was 58% in 2017-18.
There has been a dramatic fall in international students attending the Morris campus as countries such as China maintain strict travel restrictions due to COVID-19. Foreign student enrollment has fallen from 11% to 2%.
The declining student population isn’t unique to the U of M Morris campus; other schools around the country are experiencing similar declines.
Acting Chancellor Ericksen responded to Sviggum’s question by saying, “on behalf of minority students, I think that they would be shocked that anyone would think our campus was too diverse. ... They certainly feel, at times, isolated where they are located. So, the answer is from that perspective, no.”
The U’s Morris campus is an island in an overwhelmingly White and rural setting. Looking and acting different can certainly feel isolating – but we are changing.
Rural America, even rural western Minnesota, is becoming more diverse. Our friends and fellow workers come from a wider variety of backgrounds. Our children will see an even more expansive world; you can see the truth of the future in the faces of the children in a kindergarten music program. In our schools today, we see Hispanic, Black, Oriental, Native American, and White children happily singing together. With each successive generation, the percentage of non-White children grows.
Parents who insulate their children from experiencing these dynamic changes set back a crucial part of their education. Attending college is about more than an academic degree; it is also an education in navigating the complexity of relationships.
If too much diversity is the problem, what is the solution? Sviggum’s question seems to imply the U should strive to make the Morris campus more “White” to improve student enrollment. It’s an unsaid thought that is deeply offensive.
Did Sviggum tell the parents who wrote him that they should feel safe sending their kids to the Morris campus, where its diversity was a strength, not a potential threat? As a regent, he certainly should have.
Learning in a diverse environment educates the heart as well as the mind. Our hearts are opened through close association with those who were strangers to us based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or urban origin. New friendships break down learned prejudices. In overcoming the limitations that shaped our childhood, we become better adults, better parents, better friends, and better co-workers.
Parents should facilitate their children’s exploration of the world, not hide them from it. Attending the U of M Morris would be an excellent place to begin that exploration.