North Dakota is set for a pitched battle over how its university system is governed this election cycle. The legislature put on the November ballot a change to the state constitution that would eliminate the State Board of Higher Education and clarify this silly notion that the universities exist outside the scope of democratic governance.
So the higher ed establishment in the state is worried. Which is no doubt why NDSU President Dean Bresciani has decided to take to the state’s editorial pages for a series of columns seeking to instruct all of us dullards and lesser mortals about the beautiful realities of our bloated, expensive university system.
That said, an odd and ironic national media trend has emerged in recent years suggesting that higher education “isn’t worth it” and that there is no “value added.” As a faculty member whose doctoral training is in finance and economics, and as a professional who has dedicated my life and career to higher education, I am of course troubled by this.
At the same time, I have to recognize that higher education is, to the outside observer, a complicated and easily misunderstood aspect of our lives. As a result, it can be an irresistible target for those who might be sincere in their criticism of it, as well as those who might benefit from offering criticism whether it’s sincere or not.
For that reason, in coming months I plan to offer a series of op-eds to our state’s leading news agencies, which I hope will shed some light on what higher education is and is not, why we as a state and nation support it as do few other places in the world and what benefits result from that support — not only for our students but perhaps even more important, for our state and nation.
I’ll try to respectfully recognize what critics say about that, and where they do and don’t hit the mark.
If the apologists for the university system’s status quo want to make the case against higher ed reform, the worst possible person they could have tapped to do it is Dean Bresciani who can’t help but be emblematic of everything that’s wrong in higher education both in North Dakota and nationally.
This is a man who couldn’t be asked to drive to Bismarck to meet with the legislature, as opposed to hopping into a university-owned private airplane, even as he claimed to legislators that his university was facing a funding crisis. Under Bresciani, NDSU has a horrendous track record on transparency, with multiple findings of having broken open records laws from the Attorney General’s office. Most recently, tens of thousands of Bresciani’s personal emails conveniently disappeared after they’d been requested by the legislature.
Unfortunately, an investigation by the AG’s office was unable to determine whether or not Bresciani deleted those emails on purpose, but given his track record on transparency, there’s no doubt in my mind that he did.
Bresciani says the realities of higher education may be too complex for the average North Dakotan to understand, but really it’s very simple. Spending on higher education has exploded over the last decade, but the cost of higher education for students hasn’t decreased. Tuition at NDSU and UND, as examples, has doubled over the last decade. Nor has academic outcomes improved. The only good thing you can say about graduation rates at NDSU and UND, which are abysmally low, is that a lot of other colleges in the nation have similarly low graduation rates.
In a perfect world, one where North Dakota’s leaders were concerned with running the universities for the good of the state and its students rather than the institutions themselves and certain corporate interests, Dean Bresciani would have been fired by now and replaced by someone with a modicum of honesty and integrity.
Instead, Bresciani will be haranguing us from the pages of our state’s ever-sympathetic newspapers whose lax coverage of higher ed problems have allowed cancers like Bersciani to metastasize.