I had Governor Doug Burgum on my radio show today to talk about his new task force aimed at possibly reforming the governance structure of the North Dakota University System.
I’m pretty excited about the effort. I told Burgum that this had the potential to be one of the most important things he does during his term in office.
I’ve been writing about the problems with our university system for years now, and at the root of a lot of those problems is an archaic way of governing the system which was born of a now 80-year-old political scandal.
Back in the 1930’s former Governor William “Wild Bill” Langer attempted some shenanigans at North Dakota State University which resulted in an initiated measure creating the university system as a sort of 4th branch of government (some background on that here). While that independence is important in some ways, it has also isolated the universities from accountability to the public. It has fostered, I believe, an atmosphere in which the university system’s constituent institutions are run for their own benefit and not the benefit of the students and the state.
The schools have focused on packing in students which, in turn, is very good and profitable for the universities. It’s good for attendance at sporting events. It’s good for the businesses which surround and serve the campuses. But I’m not so sure that quantity-over-quality, assembly-line approach to higher education is what’s best for students.
The ugly graduation rates at the state’s institutions, which have hovered in the pathetic range for years now, is a testament to this reality.
Which brings us to Burgum and his new endeavor. He told me it was about making the university system more “nimble and effective,” but also said the the task for was only “going to focus on governance.”
I asked Burgum if he felt addressing the state constitution’s mandates for the existence of most of the universities in the system – long a bone of contention for higher education reformers – would be in-bounds for the task force.
He didn’t rule it out. “The task force has to consider everything,” he told me including “certain constraints our system has.”
The constitutional mandate for the existence of universities in places like Mayville and Bottineau is less about education than politics. The universities employ a lot of people, and drive a lot of commerce, and thus there is a lot of opposition to closing any of them. Not because operating them in those places is what best serves students, or the state, but because the politicians from those places don’t want to lose the jobs/commerce they bring.
If Burgum’s efforts can break through on some of these issues – a long shot given how long they’ve lingered – it would be a major accomplishment.
But it’s a big if.
Here’s the full audio of our interview: