Is The Legislature Set To Get Tough With The University System?

Back during election season I spoke with a lot of lawmakers about Measure 3 which would have replaced the existing governance structure for the state’s university system. While a lot of them told me they weren’t supporting the measure – some of them even came out and openly opposed it – what nearly all of them told me was that they planned to use the coming legislative session to make it clear to the universities that they aren’t happy.

Of course words (especially words spoken private) mean a lot less than action, but given what just happened in the first meeting of Legislative Management since the election, are we seeing some indications that lawmakers are about to get tough with the university system?

“Campus building projects could face tough road in ND Legislature,” reports Mike Nowtazki for the Fargo Forum:

“We should not be approving new buildings just because somebody’s got an idea,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks.

Sanford’s remarks came during the first day of Legislative Management’s two-day meeting to receive reports from the Legislature’s 23 interim committees. …

Sanford delivered the interim Higher Education Funding Committee’s report Wednesday, highlighting figures that showed full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment at the state’s 11 public colleges and universities remained relatively flat from 2009 to 2013, at around 37,500 to 39,000 students.

Roughly one-fourth of the headcount enrollment in fall 2013 consisted of students without an on-campus presence, he noted.

Given the enrollment trend and more students taking classes online, Sanford said lawmakers should be reluctant to add space on campuses without a thorough vetting of how campuses are using existing space. He said the focus should be on the $808 million backlog in deferred maintenance identified in a North Dakota University System study.

Of course, it’s all well and good to get tough with the university system now after the legislature lavished $324 million on university capital projects last session (Senator Joe Miller, a Republican from Park River, called the spending “enormous and excessive”), so maybe this is too little too late.

But Sanford’s get-tough talk for the universities didn’t stop with building projects:

Sanford also advocated for a more results-driven approach to funding higher education.

Student graduation rates are “not good,” he said, pointing to 2012 stats showing 40 percent of students at two-year institutions had graduated within three years and 43 percent of students at four-year institutions had graduated within six years.

Meanwhile, ongoing appropriations to the University System increased 53 percent from 2007-09 to the current biennium and total appropriations, including one-time funding, jumped 91 percent.

None of that is exactly news for SAB readers. I’ve written extensively about abysmal graduation rates and stagnating enrollment even as university budget (not to mention administrator payrolls) bloat.

And let’s not forget that the university system is plagued with one scandal after another, including most recently a chief auditor who is being fired even as he claims top university officials haven’t been turning over all requested records to the legislature.

It is well past time for the Legislature to get tough with the universities. But, again, actions speak louder than words. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Maybe the Legislature should tie some funding to open records requests. As in, if the university system manages to go six months without violating the public’s’ trust by breaking open record/open meeting laws, they can access more funding.

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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