MORRIS, Minn. – The students came to Room 5 of the humanities building Thursday to discuss literature in their senior seminar. But first, they reflected on the furor over University of Minnesota Regent Steve Sviggum's remarks questioning whether declining enrollment at this campus is because the school is "too diverse."

Dylan Young, president of the Morris Campus Student Association, told his classmates he hopes Sviggum realizes he was wrong when he visits this fall.

He worries that people will scapegoat "diversity" as college enrollment falls nationally and classes become more racially mixed. "What if people see these two lines going up and down and they think there's a correlation?" Young, 21, shook his head. "It's dangerous."

His professor, Becca Gercken, agreed.

"Especially because for so many historically underrepresented people, a college education is their way upwards," she said to her students.

In an open letter last week, Morris faculty members and staffers blasted Sviggum for "inaccurately faulting students of color" for enrollment issues, and assured students of color that "we care about your wellbeing as well as your irreplaceable contributions to this community."

This campus of 1,068 students has grappled in recent days with the question posed by the vice chair of the board overseeing the University of Minnesota system — comments that strike many as offensive and bewildering, especially given the close-knit nature of the school and its unique relationship with Native American students.

At an Oct. 13 Board of Regents meeting, Sviggum asked, "Is it possible that we've become too diverse?" He said he received letters from two friends that their children "didn't feel comfortable" going to school there. The Morris student body is 54 % white.

Sviggum initially stood by his comments, then apologized on Wednesday.

Young sent him an open letter countering his statements and inviting the regent to sit down for dinner with him and other campus leaders. Sviggum agreed.

A member of the Rosebud Sioux from Parmelee, S.D., Young enrolled here because the student body is nearly one-third Native. He saw the power and healing, as he put it, in earning his degree alongside students who were also historically excluded from the education system. And the institution is the only one in the University of Minnesota system that waives tuition for all Native students — part of a state statute that addresses its past as an Indian boarding school to force assimilation into white American society.

"A word that I would use to describe some of the adversities I have faced on my journey is, funnily enough, uncomfortable," Young wrote to Sviggum. One of the greatest remedies, he added, was becoming an active part of the campus Native American community. "While the diversity ... might make some prospective students uncomfortable, I reckon that it has the exact opposite effect on a far greater number of students."

Before his classes Thursday, Young told the Star Tribune that some questioned why he didn't immediately call for Sviggum to step down.

He shrugged.

"To tell you the truth, maybe I should have," said Young. "But Option A is to call him to resign, he takes it and he blows it up and says, 'Look what the woke liberals on the gay Native campus are telling me, this is outrageous, they're trying to cancel me.' Or Option B, we can sit down like adults and we can have a reasonable discussion about this."

A white stranger walked up to Young and touched his arm in support.

"Thank you so much," she said. "We're very proud of you."

Young wants to reserve full judgment until Sviggum's visit in a few weeks, though he generally believes that any regent who considers diversity a problem should leave. Comments Sviggum made to Alpha News just before his apology also gave Young pause.

"The woke community, the liberal community … has taken [my question] and jumped on it," Sviggum was quoted as saying. "They say it's racist and sexist. That's the community that says, 'If you don't think like me and you're not part of the group, you don't belong.'"

Young shook his head.

"Well, Regent Sviggum, as it turns out, people are [criticizing your comments] because what you said makes it sound like we don't belong within higher education so ...," Young chuckled wryly. "Funny."

Senior Jaret Johnson was mystified. His parents and other relatives went to college in Morris. He's from this town. Johnson, who is white, never thought race was a problem.

"I don't know where his basis on that is, to be honest," said Johnson, a member of the basketball team. "I just don't think it needs to be politics-based. … We're all people here. We all like going here."

He and several teammates joined a few dozen students, including Young, at a gathering convened by administrators Thursday outside the Multi-Ethnic Resource Center to respond to Sviggum's rhetoric. Students and staff exchanged words of solidarity and posed with signs. "Just admit you're racist Regent Sviggum," said one poster. Next to the center, a sign notes that the building from 1899 is all that remains of the Indian boarding school.

Morris is a small town over 150 miles northwest of Minneapolis, and the seat of a pro-Trump county where an influx of Latino immigrants has slowed decades of population decline and provided labor for the dairy and beef industries.

Even so, Denisse Carreon had never been around so many white people before.

The 19-year-old sophomore moved here from El Paso, Texas, where she was among 81 % of residents who are Hispanic, after receiving a scholarship. She said she "vibed" with everyone the same, but also missed having so many Chicano teachers and classmates. She longed for people with whom to speak "Spanglish."

All of which was why she and her friends of Mexican and Central American heritage exchanged a flurry of shocked messages in their group chat after seeing Sviggum's comments. They immediately threw their support behind Young as members of the student organization La Unión LatínX.

They were still reeling over it all Thursday afternoon at the student center's Turtle Mountain Café. Her friend Joselin Gonzales Mejia, president of the organization, took issue with Sviggum's explanation that "at 71 or 72 years old I say things that I would've never thought when I was 52."

She said his age is no excuse — society has changed and Sviggum should have changed with it. The women wondered if this controversy would dissuade non-white students from coming to the campus, where just 4% of students are Hispanic.

A white professor overheard the women's conversation and walked over.

Referring to Sviggum with an expletive, the professor told them, "Sviggum does not speak for our campus. I'm glad you're here and I apologize for the hurt that this has caused."

The executive committee of the student association met privately that afternoon. Young said they will put forward resolutions Monday condemning Sviggum's statements and calling on regents to visit each U campus at least twice during their terms.

But first, Young had his 2:40 p.m. seminar with Gercken.

She's one of just two Native American professors on campus, and is Irish, Pennsylvania Dutch and a descendant of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Gercken told the students that the controversy had blown up on Indigenous Twitter so much during fall break that she first heard about it from her friend at Cal State-Northridge.

Student Katie Christopherson, 25, said Sviggum was projecting his beliefs onto other people. The senior initially attended a whiter college and didn't find her community there, even as a white student. She discovered Morris was more accepting. Even if somebody did feel uncomfortable about the racial makeup here, she said, "there are plenty of other [schools] where you can go where there's a majority of white people."

Gercken asked her students what Sviggum even meant by "diverse."

"Is European 'normal' and everything else is questionable and potentially problematic? That doesn't seem like progress," said Gercken. "We all need safe spaces, but class needs to be a brave space. We have to be willing to engage on the tough … topics which some of you relate to personally and some of you are relating to vicariously."

What is the point of education, she asked, "if you're not trying to transform?"