Lawmaker Says He Has "No Faith" In North Dakota's University System

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The Legislature’s interim Higher Education Committee met in Dickinson this week, and new Chancellor Mark Hagerott presented lawmakers with the university system’s latest strategic plan, something committee member Rep. Bob Martinson (R-Bismarck) dismissed as “fluff stuff.”

This from a Dickinson Press article about the meeting which buries Martinson’s provocative comments 22 paragraphs into an article headlined, “Higher Education Committee discusses national, state trends of postsecondary degrees.”

Talk about burying the lede:

Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, voiced dissent to the plan presentation, referring to it as “fluff stuff.”

“I apologize for being so blunt, but I’ve seen strategic plans for 40 years and I don’t see any difference in any of them. Everybody says the same thing,” he said.

Martinson added that while he used to be a strong supporter of the higher education system, he had “no faith” in it anymore, claiming the state investments in postsecondary education had yielded no improvements and a lack of unity between institutions.“Until you show me that you can make a difference, I’m just not going to pay attention,” he said.

More from the Bismarck Tribune:

“You say we have a successful system,” Martinson said. “I would argue it’s not successful and we’ve never really had a system. I apologize for being so blunt, but I’ve read strategic plans for 40 years. I don’t see any difference in any of them.”

Martinson went on to say he wanted to hear concretely how the system was going to meet its goals after putting millions of dollars into higher education over the years.

“Hagerott said he appreciated the straightforward criticism, but added he thought the state has a good system for higher education,” the Tribune article reports, noting that Hagerott understands that the legislature wants to see some return for their “generous” expenditures on the universities.

But here’s the thing: North Dakota really doesn’t have a good university system. Unless you define “good” as gobbling up lots of taxpayer dollars while raising tuition, bloating administrative payrolls, winning sports championships, collecting a windfall for supposedly private alumni foundations and generally doing very little to improve things like graduation rates and degree value for students.

Part of this is our fault. For a few generations now Americans have believed that we can improve our state, and our country, by pushing as many kids into college as possible. Now with a serious student loan bubble, and skyrocketing higher education costs, I think we’re starting to see the folly of that attitude.

But a lot of fault lies with those who work in higher education, who in North Dakota have taken a windfall from the taxpayers while doing very little to increase the value of the universities to the state and its students.

North Dakota has led the nation in per-capita spending on higher education for some time now. From the 2005-2007 biennium through the just-finished 2013-2015 biennium the average increase in higher education spending has been 24 percent. The higher education budget has roughly tripled over the last decade.

What have we gotten from the universities in return for that spending? Add into that the fact that many lawmakers feel the university system actively works to deceive them, and keep inconvenient information from both them and the public, and it makes for a toxic situation.

That is the crux of Martinson’s complaint, and he’s right. More lawmakers need to stop fearing the political backlash of politically influential university presidents and alumni and speak out about this.

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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