Burgum’s Proposal for Governing North Dakota’s Universities Isn’t Likely to Fix Anything

North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum does a live Snapchat video as NDSU President Dean Bresciani flashes the Bison horns during the afternoon commencement address at graduation ceremonies from the Fargodome on Saturday, May 13, 2017. David Samson / The Forum

Much of the turmoil in North Dakota’s university system in recent years has been a product of the struggle by the State Board of Higher Education, and the Legislature, to get the state’s 11 public campuses to work together as a unified system.

The NDUS is addled by parochialism, particularly at the largest institutions in Fargo and Grand Forks where arrogant administrators backed by powerful alumni and large hometown legislative delegations have consistently defied unity efforts.

Fargo wants to do what’s best for Fargo. Grand Forks wants what’s best for Grand Forks. Little concern is given for what might be best for the higher education needs of the whole state.

I’ve long felt that one possible way to address this problem was a change in governance structure. The current State Board of Higher Education, which is tasked with overseeing the NDUS, is appointed by the governor. But the governor is bizarrely restrained in his control over this board. He can only pick members from a list of candidates provided to him by others, and once appointed SBHE members cannot be removed by the governor.

It has been hard enough to hold NDSU and UND accountable in the current governance model where those campuses were governed by the same board as everyone else. Do we expect that situation to improve when they have their own boards?

This creates a situation where nobody elected of the people has direct responsibility for governing our state universities, despite the large chunk of the state budget those universities gobble up every biennium.

I was excited when Governor Doug Burgum announced a task force to look at changes to the way the universities are governed. Burgum has said some very exciting and provocative things about the status quo in higher ed in the past, and I thought this new committee might be a step toward a university system that serves students and the state rather than political and parochial interests.

Boy was I wrong. Last night Burgum’s office announced the task force committee’s recommendations, and far from challenging parochialism the changes would entrench it.

You can read the full press release below, but in a nutshell the proposal would amend the state constitution to replace the current State Board of Higher Education with three separate committees. UND and NDSU would each get their own committee, while the other 9 institutions would be governed by a third. I’ve got an ask in for details on how the members of these various boards would be appointed. Would it be the current process or something new? UPDATE: “The current nomination/appointment process would be used but the task force is recommending a review of that process to see if it can be made more efficient,” Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki tells me via email.

Anyway, the turmoil in the NDUS was a product of campus-level resistance to policies promoting collaboration and unity among the institutions coming mostly from the two largest campuses. The solution from this committee is to give those two campuses their own governing boards?

Are we giving up on the idea of a unified university system? It has been hard enough to hold NDSU and UND accountable in the current governance model where those campuses were governed by the same board as everyone else. Do we expect that situation to improve when they have their own boards?

I think we can be nearly certain that the UND and NDSU boards will devolve into little more than rubber stamps for whatever the parochial interests around those campuses want.

Governor Doug Burgum campaigned for governor promising he’d “reinvent government.”

We might remember that most inventions turn out to be failures.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

Related posts

Top