Ed Schafer Is Doing The Work Other University Leaders Will Not

If it seems like the University of North Dakota’s efforts to grapple with their budget situation is in the headlines a lot lately – certainly a lot more than any of the state’s other public institutions of higher education – that may speak to deficit in the quality of leadership of those flying under the radar.

At UND former governor Ed Schafer has taken it upon himself not just to address the institution’s short-term budget situation but to get the ball rolling on a transformation of its finances.

He explains the problem succinctly in this question-and-answer with the Grand Forks Herald, which is worth your time to read in full:

For years, UND has not had enough money. They’ve said, “We don’t have enough to do what we want to do.” They’ve said, “We will skim off maintenance and put it into operations,” and so we have a steam plant that’s falling down.

We will not pay appropriate salaries, but then we’ll compare those salaries to our peer institutions and complain that they’re not enough. We will develop some churn in the staff and keep bringing cheaper people in. This concept is, you just manage the budget because you don’t have enough.

Meanwhile, you have this growing operation that says, “Well, I have a professor who has an interest in teaching a class in such and such. So, let’s go ahead and do that.” And before long, you have five students in some classes, and more administrators.

Is that aligned with the strategic direction of the university? Is that the 21st century vision that this community is looking for?

Meanwhile, as you’re expanding the size of the university, you’re laying the costs off on tuition. Because you’re not getting enough money from the state, you’re not getting enough money from the feds, so you’re throwing it off on tuition. And so the students now are the safety valve for this ever-expanding university that you need to pay for.

Now we’ve arrived at a point where the federal government’s broke, so we’re not going to get any money there. The state government revenues are under pressure, so we’re not going to be getting any extra money there. Students, in my opinion, are topped out.

So what do we do?

Schafer’s answer is not just budget cuts but fundamental reforms to the university’s governance.

The word “visionary” gets thrown around a lot in politics, and it’s usually hyperbole. But it does apply when a leader has the gumption to look beyond immediate problems to long-term solutions.

Not everyone understands this. In a recent column left-wing commentator Mike McFeely contrasted the Schafer-driven budget battles at UND with the more quiet, pacific approach at North Dakota State University. In McFeely’s view – which unfortunately seems colored by the UND/NDSU sports rivalry, as if it were relevant – that’s because of the competence of the leadership at NDSU.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Fires have become a problem at the chemistry labs at Dunbar Hall. At Harris Hall researchers have to lug water because 60-year-old pipes don’t work. According to a North Dakota University System report in 2014, NDSU was in the worst position of all the state’s public institutions with $244 million in deferred maintenance, part of a $808 million total for all of the campuses combined.[/mks_pullquote]

No, he apparently wasn’t joking. He seems to think that inaction is proof of competence.

“NDSU and the other schools, apparently, were in far better shape financially to weather a cut while UND’s budget was a trainwreck, thanks to now-departed president Robert Kelley and his administration,” he wrote last week. “This is difficult to swallow, I know, because the narrative has long been that Kelley was the quiet and humble man who flew coach while his counterpart at NDSU, Dean Bresciani, was the arrogant and wild-spending wannabe who flew business class. The truth is a little more inconvenient. While Bresciani was anticipating an economic slowdown and adjusting accordingly, UND was doing business as usual and overestimating the amount of money coming from the state.”

Unfortunately for McFeely, the facts don’t support these wishful and superficial conclusions. NDSU was not and is not prepared for the state’s change in fiscal fortunes. They just aren’t really addressing them yet.

Schafer says that UND has been financing spending bloat on the back of deferred maintenance and tuition hikes. He’s right.

The former issue was allowed to get so bad at UND that the school is now looking at vacating buildings (which might speak to the campus being overbuilt in the first place).

But this problem exists at NDSU as well. Fires have become a problem at the chemistry labs at Dunbar Hall. At Harris Hall researchers have to lug water because 60-year-old pipes don’t work. According to a North Dakota University System report in 2014, NDSU was in the worst position of all the state’s public institutions with $244 million in deferred maintenance, part of a $808 million total for all of the campuses combined.

Please, tell us more about the expert administration going on at NDSU.

These problems aren’t for want of revenues. Taxpayer appropriations to the university system have spiked despite enrollment remaining relatively flat according to Legislative Council data compiled in January:

enrollmentvsspending

Meanwhile, over the last decade, even North Dakota’s relatively low tuition (compared to other states) has seen consistent increases. At UND and NDSU in-state tuition is up nearly 40 percent over the last decade. At the state’s other four-year institutions it’s up more than 36 percent, with a 22 percent increase at the two-year schools:

tuition

Students are paying more. The taxpayers are paying a lot more. So where has the money been going?

NDSU has the same problems UND is facing, and to a lesser extent the other state schools share those problems. They’ve overspent while simultaneously undeserving the state and the students.

What’s different at UND is leadership. Schafer has come in and decided to do something more than the bare minimum, and to the credit of Chancellor Mark Hagerott and the State Board of Higher Education, he’s being allowed to do it.

That makes him stick out from the other university leaders, sure, but only because the other university leaders aren’t leading.

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.

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