Pronouns and tribal affiliations are now forbidden in South Dakota public university employee emails

A new South Dakota policy to stop the use of gender pronouns by public university faculty and staff in official correspondence is also keeping Native American employees from listing their tribal affiliations in a state with a long and violent history of conflict with tribes.

Two University of South Dakota faculty members, Megan Red Shirt-Shaw and her husband, John Little, have long included their gender pronouns and tribal affiliations in their work email signature blocks. But both received written warnings from the university in March that doing so violated a policy adopted in December by the South Dakota Board of Regents.

“I was told that I had 5 days to remove my tribal affiliation and pronouns,” Little said in an email to The Associated Press. “I believe the exact wording was that I had ‘5 days to correct the behavior.’ If my tribal affiliation and pronouns were not removed after the 5 days, then administrators would meet and make a decision whether I would be suspended (with or without pay) and/or immediately terminated.”

The policy is billed by the board as a simple branding and communications policy. It came only months after Republican Gov. Kristi Noem sent a letter to the regents that railed against “liberal ideologies” on college campuses and called for the board to ban drag shows on campus and “remove all references to preferred pronouns in school materials,” among other things.

All nine voting members of the board were appointed by Noem, whose remarks in March accusing tribal leaders of benefitting from illegal drug cartels and not properly caring for children has prompted most South Dakota tribes to ban her from their land.

South Dakota’s change comes in the midst of a conservative quest to limit diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives gaining momentum in state capitals and college governing boards around the country, with about one-third of the states taking some sort of action against it.

Policies targeting gender pronoun use have focused mainly on K-12 students, although some small religious colleges have also restricted pronoun use. Houghton University in western New York fired two dorm directors last year after they refused to remove gender pronouns from their work email signatures.

But some fear the South Dakota policy could signify a creep of such efforts into public colleges and universities.

“Quite frankly, this is the first I’ve heard of a state university choosing to use branding standards to eliminate what obviously had become a practice of including pronouns and tribal affiliations to emails,” said Paulette Grandberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. “But I’m not surprised, given the current climate we’re in.”

Grandberry Russell referred to the conservative push limiting transgender rights and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as a “testing ground” to see if discriminatory laws will be tolerated.

“It is a steady progression,” she said. “This comes in the form of communications and branding standards. Is that going to be the next frontier in sanitizing the realities of our differences? “

The college faculty advocacy group American Association of University Professors is not aware of any other faculty at a public university in the U.S. being required to drop their preferred pronouns in official correspondence, spokesman Kelly Benjamin said.

“Anecdotally I’ll say, because I live in Florida and have seen what’s happened with all the anti-wokeness and targeting of education here, I know this is part and parcel to a longer-term agenda,” Benjamin said.

A spokeswoman for the University of South Dakota declined to answer questions about whether its administrators or the University Faculty Senate had been consulted before regents adopted the policy, referring questions to the Board of Regents.

Shuree Mortenson, a spokeswoman for the regents, said all six universities under the regents board umbrella were given the opportunity to review the policy, “but ultimately, the Board of Regents made this decision.” She declined to say whether other faculty at any of the five other schools had received warnings about not using gender pronouns, tribal affiliation or other identifiers, but defended the new policy as providing “consistency to safeguard the brand.”

Mortenson did not answer questions about whether the inclusion of tribal affiliation in official public university signature blocks had been considered by the regents before adopting it or whether tribal leaders in the state had been consulted.

When the policy was announced to faculty in January, Little said he and Red Shirt-Shaw asked schools administrators how the new policy would impact the inclusion of tribal affiliations.

“It was clear that they had not considered that this would impact Native employees,” Little said.

The U.S. had long tried to eradicate Native American communities and cultures through warfare, assimilation and other means before recognizing tribes’ inherent right to govern themselves. Indigenous children, for example, were taken from their communities and forced into Native American boarding schools, which systematically abused students.

Red Shirt-Shaw said in social media posts that being told she could not list her tribal affiliation as part of her signature felt like further erasure of Native people in South Dakota.

“The ability to share my tribal affiliation as well as gender pronouns signals that I am a person who values the lived experiences of others,” she said.

Both she and Little have begun listing their tribal affiliation and pronouns in the body of their emails, which the university currently is allowing.

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota said it has heard from faculty and students at the University of South Dakota who are concerned about the new policy. The ACLU is considering next steps to address it.

“Maybe their intent was to suppress pronoun usage in email signatures, but as is often the case with any limitation or suppression of free speech, there’s always unintended consequences,” said Samantha Chapman, an advocacy manager for the ACLU South Dakota. “There is also a component here of double erasure. There are plenty of queer Indigenous folks in South Dakota.” ___

Associated Press journalist Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report.

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