NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott Passes His First Test

Back in July, shortly after NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott took office, I wrote that the “measure of Hagerott’s success will be the degree to which he can change the priorities of the universities.”

Hagerott got his first test on that front, and so far he gets an “A” grade from this observer and critic.

For too long the North Dakota University System has been run in the service not of students and the state but of parochial political interests and big egoes. One of the biggest and most belligerent egos in the university system is North Dakota State President Dean Bresciani who recently announced, unilaterally and without bothering to loop in state lawmakers, a plan to push his school’s attendance to 18,000 within the next five years.

That would be a 24 percent increase in enrollment for a school that has seen less than 1 percent growth in fall enrollment over the last five years. For a school that is currently graduating less than 23 percent of four-year degree students on time, and just over 53 percent after six years.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]This put Hagerott in a real pickle. What state lawmakers, and even the State Board of Higher Education, want is a unified university system focused on serving students. What Bresciani is proposing is a policy of inflating enrollment for the glory of his institution.[/mks_pullquote]

When I spoke with state lawmakers about Bresciani’s plan, those were exactly their concerns. “If you look at the retention and completion issues, they’re real,” Rep. Mark Sanford, chairman of the interim Higher Education Funding Committee, told me. “And to be adding more students before you have a better handle on those issues, it seems to me you should be figuring out the retention and completion issues.”

This put Hagerott in a real pickle. What state lawmakers, and even the State Board of Higher Education, want is a unified university system focused on serving students. What Bresciani is proposing is a policy of inflating enrollment for the glory of his institution. Past chancellors, with the obvious exception of former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani (more on that in a moment), would have caved to Bresciani, but Hagerott seems to be standing up to him.

“Part of it is, how much can the NDSU existing infrastructure take?” Hagerott told the Bismarck Tribune. “I will say that coming to ask for more dorm rooms and more bricks and mortar, that would not be something I’d support, but I haven’t heard that from NDSU’s president.”

“So 18,000 that would require new buildings, I wouldn’t support that,” he continued. “But 18,000 where someone could be online, or it could be collaborative degrees out at Dickinson … Really, the devil is in the details,” adding that it would be hard to justify that kind of enrollment growth at NDSU when the state has “excess capacity” at other campuses.

In other words, Hagerott’s message to Bresciani is that NDSU is part of a university system and will operate as a part of that system.

To be fair, the challenge of the system is that North Dakota’s constitution mandates the the existence of certain institutions in certain communities that are being operated not because they serve the state but because they serve the political interests of those communities, but that’s a political football which is not and should not be in Hagerott’s hands.

Hagerott’s mandate is to run an efficient system of universities. That he is willing to stand up to a university president putting his institution ahead of the others is a good sign. That he seems to be doing it more deftly than Shirvani – who got canned after taking on the university presidents, Bresciani in particular – is also heartening.

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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