Governor Burgum: Higher Ed Leaders Need to Feel More Fear


Forbes today has a very good interview with Governor Doug Burgum. The whole thing is very interesting and worth your time to read, but this exchange regarding education policy jumped out at me.

In it Burgum, who has been saying some provocative things about education reform of late, suggests that people in higher education are entrenched and clinging to the status quo in part because they aren’t scared enough of the changes coming.

His solution for that? Making himself inaccessible to people who want to defend the status quo, instead opening the door to people who want to talk change:

Q: Health care or education? As governor, which is your higher priority?

BURGUM: Education. Half of our general fund in North Dakota is going to K-12 and higher education. That’s a huge commitment for us as a state. But education needs to transform. I just read in Forbes that the U.S. has $1.3 trillion in student debt, with an 11.2% default rate, which I don’t think is going to go down. So education has to change; it has to provide a much higher ROI.

Q: Therein lies the rub. Education – higher ed, especially – has an entrenched constituency that likes things the way they are.

BURGUM: Yes. If you look at a university, what do you find? You’ve got tenure, you’ve got a faculty senate, you’ve got hundreds of years of tradition. There’s a sort of entitlement thing going on–the sense that because you’ve been around so long you’re always going to be around. Too many leaders in higher ed don’t feel the existential fear that they could actually go out of business.

Q: So how do you instill that fear–and a sense of urgency?

BURGUM: You have to get transformative leaders across all these institutions. When I took office I was very clear. In my State of the State talk, I said: “I will meet with anyone, any time.  I’ll meet until midnight if you want to have a discussion about how to reinvent your cabinet, your institution, your whatever – I will do that. But if you want to have a meeting with me to defend your institution, I won’t have time on my calendar.”

Q: Has that worked?

BURGUM: Some people come in and say, “Hey, we want to tell you about all this exciting stuff we’re doing,” but pretty quickly the talk becomes a defense of why they’re doing everything the way they’ve been doing things and why they don’t need to change. Those meetings are shorter and less fun than the ones with people who come in and say, “Hey, look, we’re up against a big challenge here, and we know we need to change. How can we do that?” You’ve got to have leaders who are willing to drive the transformation. And then you have to keep communicating with them.

After been writing about the need for reform in higher education for years now.

I have to say that it’s exciting to have a leader who recognizes that need.

What worries me is that Burgum seems intent on trying to inspire a proactive approach from the universities. He wants to embolden reformers and discourage the usual crowd of sticks-in-the-mud who want nothing to change.

In a perfect world that would work, and things would improve, but the entrenched interests in and surrounding higher education have had a lot of success fighting a war of attrition. Elected officials turn over in office a lot faster than university administrators and faculty.

If Burgum wants change, if he wants real reform, it will need to be something he pushes.