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Noem pushes to bar ‘critical race theory’ from universities

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota’s public universities shouldn’t be teaching certain concepts of race and racism, Gov. Kristi Noem said Tuesday, in line with a nationwide GOP movement to keep critical race theory out of classrooms.

In a letter to the Board of Regents that oversees the state’s six public universities, the Republican governor targeted critical race theory and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “1619 Project,” describing them as misleading “students into believing the country is evil or was founded upon evil.”

Noem’s letter — released on the anniversary of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis — comes amid a national reckoning on the influence of race and racism on policing and other realms of American life.

Conservatives across the country have decried critical race theory as an attempt to pit racial groups against each other and teach that certain groups are responsible for the injustices of the past. Others say the theory is simply a way to look at how race and racism have undoubtedly shaped the nation. The New York Times’ 1619 project focuses on the legacy of slavery throughout the nation’s founding and history.

“It is critical that our classrooms remain a place of learning, not indoctrination,” Noem said in the letter.

However, David Burrow, the Chair of the History Department at the University of South Dakota, said the current conservative ire aimed at critical race theory is “searching for a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist.” The goal of the history department is teaching students to investigate historical records to form their own interpretations, he said, not indoctrinating them into a particular view.

It’s important within academia to “be open to non-dominant perspectives — experiences of people who are not in the mainstream,” he said.

The Board of Regents has a policy of protecting freedom of expression as “the right to discuss and present scholarly opinions and conclusions on all matters both in and outside the classroom without Board or institutional discipline or restraint.”

But Noem called for the Board to set a policy “to preserve honest, patriotic education,” defining that as cultivating “both a profound love of our country and a realistic picture of its virtues and challenges.”

That kind of rhetoric is worrisome to faculty members, Burrow said, because defining what is taught in classrooms could result in restrictions being placed on academic freedom.

Noem did not cite specific instances of anything currently being taught that she found objectionable. But she asked the Board of Regents to look into whether state funds were being used for such teachings on race and whether diversity offices had gone beyond the bounds of “their original mission.”

The Board of Regents did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Conservative lawmakers have worked in recent years to gain more control of the state’s public universities and rein in what they see as a stifling of conservative thought on university campuses. The Board of Regents, along with the Legislature, is currently reviewing the administrative structure of the universities. A report on a possible restructuring is due in November.

Burrow said he did not anticipate any immediate changes to how history and race are taught at universities, casting Noem’s letter as the latest episode in a long tradition of politicians attacking academia to score points with their base.

“She seems to envision a version where the United States is always right,” he said. “That’s just not what history demonstrates.”

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