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An illustration with a cross section of people expressing their gender pronouns.

The University of South Dakota recently threatened two employees with disciplinary action for including their gender pronouns and tribal affiliations in their email signatures.

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A new South Dakota Board of Regent’s policy prohibits employees at its six public universities from including their preferred gender pronouns and tribal affiliations on their email signatures.

Since the board passed the policy last December, at least two employees at the University of South Dakota have been threatened with disciplinary action, including possible suspension and termination, if they did not remove their pronouns and tribal affiliations, according to The Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

"I am saddened that the BOR continues the erasure of Native people in the state of South Dakota,” John Little, director of Native recruitment and alumni engagement at USD , said in a post on Instagram in April. He formerly listed his preferred “he.him.his” pronouns and his affiliation with "Standing Rock Dakota" on his email signature.

A spokesperson for the Board of Regents said in an emailed statement Tuesday that the policy was a matter of consistent branding in official communications.

“The South Dakota Board of Regents’ Branding and Communication policy emphasizes the importance of communicating the information necessary for our employees to effectively perform job duties,” Shuree Mortenson, director of communications for the board, said. “Although some employees may have additional information they would like to share, as an employer, it is critical to identify consistent parameters for official employee communication. 

“While supplemental contextual information can offer value in certain instances, consistent criteria for communications are necessary to safeguard our universities’ missions and interests.”

The statement noted that the policy is limited to communications by employees acting in their official capacity and using institutional communication channels.

Little, who received written notice that his email signature was noncompliant in March, said university officials were quick to embrace, and enforce, the policy.

“This is an institution that I have sacrificed time and energy to support, while simultaneously they did not hesitate to provide me with a permanent written letter to my record and with the threat of termination for using my tribal affiliation and pronouns in my signature."

Little’s post explained that during a meeting with human resources he was told that if he was suspended, he’d be prohibited from attending the 12th Annual Native Alumni Dinner or 50th Annual Wacipi, which are both public events hosted by the public university. He said he received “verbal offers” on two separate occasions that if he removed his tribal affiliations from his email signature, USD administrators would ask the Board of Regents about amending the new policy to allow Native employees to keep their tribal affiliations in their email signatures.

But after consulting with lawyers, Little and Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, director of Native Student Services at USD, who is the other publicly identified person who faced possible discipline over pronouns and tribal affiliations in their signature, both decided to comply with the restriction.

“I have since placed both my tribal affiliations and pronouns in the body of each email that I send, which I have been told will not be challenged (at least for now) by USD administrators or the BOR,” Little said in his post.

Neither Little, nor Red Shirt-Shaw immediately responded to Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment Tuesday.

The email signature policy, which falls under the board’s communications and branding regulations, is also raising questions with the American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota.

“I see this as a very questionable, squishy type of place in the law,” Samantha Chapman, advocacy manager for the ACLU of South Dakota, said, adding that it’s unclear whether restricting the contents of email signatures, violates free speech laws. “I would definitely be looking a lot closer at a university restricting what can go into the body of an email.”

The new email signature policy states that an employee’s email signature may only contain educational credentials or degrees earned; job title and name of unit; email addresses; physical and mailing addresses; phone number; web links to official institutional websites or social media platforms; the university logo and motto; and any professional disclosures.

While the policy does not explicitly state that pronouns and tribal affiliations are not permitted it says that “inclusion of information, graphics or links not listed (in the policy) are prohibited,” and that those found in violation could face disciplinary action.

It’s not clear how many employees beyond Little and Red Shirt-Shaw have been asked to remove information from their email signatures, including pronouns, tribal affiliations or any other prohibited details, in compliance with the policy. The Argus Leader requested that information, but reported last week that the Board of Regents has not complied and noted that it isn’t required to disclose information about “personnel matters.”

USD officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Inside Higher Ed Tuesday.

Pronouns Previously Targeted

Chapman, of the ACLU of South Dakota, said the organization is concerned the state’s public universities may not be applying the policy evenly.

“We haven’t heard from anyone else (other than Little and Red Shirt-Shaw) who have listed their office hours or scheduling link being punished for that,” Chapman said, noting that the policy also prohibits that type of information. “We are paying very close attention to see if this is a tool that’s being used for discrimination against certain individuals.”

USD’s student government passed a resolution in February, before the university threatened Little and Red Shirt-Shaw with possible disciplinary action, criticizing the policy, which also applies to student-employees.

The resolution noted that the email signature policy follows previous calls by the governor for “South Dakota’s universities to remove references to preferential pronoun usage.”

In May of 2023, Governor Kristi Noem urged the Board of Regents to prohibit drag shows on university campuses and remove all references to preferred pronouns “in all school materials.”

“What I see the most often from leaders in our state is a push to shove queer identities out of public life,” said Chapman, who believes prohibiting the use of gender pronouns was likely the primary driver of the board’s policy. “I don’t think the Board of Regents considered how that would affect folks who include their tribal affiliation in that email signature. I think it may have been an unintended consequence and now the Board of Regents is having to figure out how to navigate that.”

While South Dakota has a long history of oppressing Native residents, some of the state’s public universities have attempted to confront the fact that their campuses sit on land Natives inhabited before the government forcibly removed them.

South Dakota State University, which is also governed by the Board of Regents, has a land acknowledgment posted on its website stating that “before these sites were named South Dakota State University, they were called home by people of American Indian Nations indigenous to this region.”

USD President Sheila Gestring made a similar statement during a state of the university address in 2021, according to The Argus Leader.

Student Pushback

Some students at USD also believe the new policy was intended to target the LGBTQ community, specifically.

“This has been a continued attack on diversity at USD,” and the other universities in the public university system, Carter Linke, a USD student, said to Student Regent Brock Brown, at the February meeting before the student government passed the resolution. “I would like some sort of acknowledgement that this is a greater scheme to try to erase queer people from the public university system.”

In response, Brown, a law student at USD, said Linke’s statement “was so ridiculous, I will not acknowledge it,” adding that as an employee of a public university system “you lose certain rights, which means that your right to free speech is not absolute.”

While it’s not clear if any legal challenges to the policy will be filed, students are pushing the board to repeal it.

“An argument that has been levied by the Board in support of this policy is that it helps to protect USD’s brand,” Sam Markley, a USD student and government affairs Chair of USD’s Student Government Affairs Committee, said in a statement, noting that students believe they weren’t given enough notice to provide input on the policy before the board approved it.

“Preventing the Director of Native Recruitment from advertising that they are a member of a tribe, something that seems pretty relevant to their job, not only prevents USD from being a successful brand but also is incredibly ignorant and re-entrenches centuries of erasure that the Native community has experienced in South Dakota and in this country.”

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