Resolution To Replace Board Of Higher Education Advances In State House

The North Dakota Senate took up three of the resolutions to reform the university system today.

HCR3008, introduced by Rep. Mark Dosch, would have stripped mention of the state universities out of the state constitution, allowing them to be closed through statute if the legislature decides it. That bill failed by a surprisingly narrow 45-47 vote.

HCR3042, introduced by Rep. Rick Becker, was also considered today. It would have replaced the existing State Board of Higher Education with an elected chancellor advised by a board appointed by the governor. It failed on a 21-70 vote, but only after another resolution calling for a similar sort of reform passed.

HCR3047, introduced by House Majority Leader Al Carlson, passed on a 62-28 vote (Rep. Becker stood up and supported the vote). It would replace the chancellor and the SBHE with an appointee by the governor who would serve at the pleasure of the governor and who would govern the university system within the confines of laws passed by the legislature.

As someone who has been calling for this sort of reform for the university system for years now, often as people claimed I was an extremist for even suggesting it, I am very gratified to see this legislation advance.

Here’s the floor debate:

“If you’re going to expect accountability out of a governor appointee you’re not going to get it,” said Rep. Bob Skarphol, an outspoken supporter of embattled Chancellor Hamid Shirvani. “You’re going to get political expediency.”

That’s a fair point, but I’m not sure that a lot of the problems in the state’s university system in the past don’t stem from political expediency as well. The university presidents are very, very powerful politically (witness their campaign of personal destruction against Shirvani) and in the past the State Board of Higher Education and other chancellors have bent to their will.

Right now there is a board, and a chancellor, who will not bend to their will, and they’re trying to implement a sort of heckler’s veto by stirring the pot of public sentiment.

Such a tactic would be far less effective should a chancellor have a mandate from our state’s chief executive who, in turn, has a mandate from the people.

What’s more, this much-touted “independence” of the State Board of Higher Education where they carry on as though the legislature’s only control in the system is over funding would be ended. The head of the university system, under Carlson’s resolution, serves at the pleasure of the governor. Meaning he or she could be fired, unlike members of the current SBHE. What’s more, this appointee would have to govern the system in accordance with laws passed by the legislature.

Some will argue that this “politicizes” the university system. I would argue that politics is democracy, and that our present system is far too independent of the democratic process for something that consumes over $1 billion of our tax dollars every biennium (and billions more in tuition paid by our kids).

I would have preferred that Rep. Becker’s bill passed, but this is still a big step in the right direction.

Discussion question: I wonder if the university presidents are now regretting their war on Shirvani seeing as how they’ve given a big boost to legislation ending the independence of the system they work in?

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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