The University of Minnesota's governing board told the U's new president Friday it can do more to draw students from rural, more conservative parts of the state.

At a two-day retreat this week in Faribault, Joan Gabel and the board tackled campus inclusion — what Gabel recognized as a provocative, controversial topic at a time when growing diversity has pushed universities to rethink how they serve students. Gabel has touted her efforts to improve outcomes for students of color at the University of South Carolina, where she served as provost before taking over at the U on July 1.

But during the discussion, some regents said they are more preoccupied with how the university promotes diversity of opinion on an urban, liberal-leaning Twin Cities campus that does not always reflect the mind-set of a purple state. Others insisted the U should take seriously students' campus experience — and the gap between how welcomed white and minority students feel.

Gabel said after the retreat that making campuses more inviting to underrepresented students remains a priority, but she backs regents' push to broaden the definition of diversity. "I do think creating a sense of belonging for students of color is important," she said. "I didn't hear anything today that made me think it's not."

The conversation was part of a wide-ranging discussion meant to help Gabel take the board's pulse, and found the regents in agreement on a slew of issues. At the end of the event, regents sought to rally around a set of goals that would inform Gabel's bid to create a new strategic plan for the five-campus system.

Gabel opened the campus climate talk with two numbers: On the Twin Cities campus, about 63% of white students said in 2018 that they feel at home. Roughly 40% of black students seconded that. Though the numbers are in line with outcomes for the U's peer institutions on a national survey, Gabel said she is unhappy with both numbers.

Some regents hastened to push back on the suggestion that the U has a campus climate problem. They noted the Twin Cities campus is more diverse than the state as a whole. They reminisced about their own time as U students, when it offered significantly fewer amenities and services.

"We sometimes create a self-fulfilling prophecy when we say there is a campus climate problem," regent Darrin Rosha said, adding. "The university provides the best environment it's ever provided."

Rosha blamed a drop in student satisfaction on the "Twitter-sphere" effect: "If you keep pounding students with the idea they're not treated well, they start believing they're not treated well."

Past inclusion concerns

In 2015, a group of students staged a sit-in at then President Eric Kaler's office, alleging racial discrimination and putting forth demands including greater diversity in hiring. But the university has dodged the widespread unrest over racial inclusion that has roiled campuses such at the University of Missouri, where Gabel served as business school dean before protests toppled its president.

Students more recently brought up inclusion concerns after a near-unanimous Board of Regents rejected a faculty recommendation to rename four campus buildings named after former U leaders who served in the 1930s and 1940s, when the university blocked black students from its dorms. (Gabel told regents she would circle back with a proposal about how to move on from that divisive debate.)

Some regents voiced frustration with what they described as overly vague, feelings-based student complaints about climate. Regent Richard Beeson said student leaders must pinpoint shortcomings — and propose solutions.

"At some point you have to go from general unease with campus climate to specific proposals," he said.

A few regents said a key challenge for the university is drawing and keeping students from rural Minnesota, who have historically shunned the U in favor of schools in the Dakotas and Iowa. Invoking the deep divides exposed by the 2016 electoral outcome map of the state, Regent Thomas Anderson spoke of a tough transition for some students from greater Minnesota to the U's flagship campus.

Regent Michael Hsu expressed concern that the U hasn't done enough to figure out who has repeatedly vandalized the College Republicans mural on the Washington Avenue bridge. Steve Sviggum said the university should also aim to nurture diversity of viewpoints.

He said in his experience, the Humphrey School and Sociology Department lack professors who hold conservative viewpoints.

But other regents said the university cannot be complacent on how welcomed students, particularly students of color, feel on campus.

"If students are saying this is how they feel, we need to address it," said Janie Mayeron, one of four regents who joined the board this summer. "We need to care, and we need to keep working at that gap."

Mike Kenyanya, the board's student regent who graduated from the Duluth campus this May, said the board must take ownership for improving campus climate and not rely on students to pitch solutions.

Ultimately, many on the board rallied around a goal of increasing faculty and staff diversity and examining long-term strategies "through an inclusivity lens." Some also urged Gabel to evaluate the 75 programs she counted at the U dealing with multicultural issues.

Gabel said it is too soon to share specific ideas or initiatives to improve campus climate. She plans to seek input from students and others on campus.

"I think we're in a position to be better than the national conversation and close our gap better," she said.

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781