State Board of Higher Education Wisely Declines to Give University Presidents a Blank Check on Tuition

North Dakota State College of Science President John Richman and North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani on Monday, June 18, at NDSU. David Samson / The Forum

A recent spat between State Board of Higher Education members and a couple of university presidents over tuition policy for out-of-state students illustrates exactly why Governor Doug Burgum’s proposed changes to university governance are such a bad idea.

If you haven’t been following along, recently South Dakota announced that they would be granting in-state tuition status to students from neighboring states like North Dakota. Presidents of institutions in the North Dakota University System – notably NDSU’s Dean Bresciani and Wahpeton’s John Richman – hit the panic button and rushed to the State Board of Higher Education demanding a blank check to set their own tuition policy.

“We have the opportunity to respond to an immediate enrollment threat to the state of North Dakota,” Bresciani told the board at a December 6 meeting. “When I say immediate, I don’t mean somewhere down the road. We’re in the heat of the enrollment cycle right now. South Dakota was not accidental for implementing this for this summer.”

While certainly higher education is a competitive enterprise, and while it makes sense to respond in some fashion to South Dakota’s initiative, we cannot simply give university presidents a blank check with no accountability to the taxpayers.

The board, widely, declined to act immediately, with board member Dan Traynor pointing out the proposal they were being asked to approve was half-baked at best.

“I’m a little bit concerned with approving a proposal that is not fully fleshed out, has no parameters to it, gives carte blanche discretion to university presidents with no report-back guidance and affects the taxpayers of North Dakota,” he said, per reporter Sydney Mook.

Fast forward to last night, the SBHE again considered this issue, and rejected the proposal from Richman and Bresciani. Instead of giving the university presidents a blank check, the board approved a motion from Traynor giving NDSU the right to change tuition for students from some states in our region – Iowa, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Colorado – for two years. The motion also requires that NDSU report back the fiscal impacts of these changes to the board.

Bresciani was predictably intemperate in his response to this motion, which was passed by the board unanimously. “It seems interesting to single out one campus of 11 with very different rules, but I defer to the authority of the board,” he said.

One might note that for Bresciani, complying with SBHE policy is not optional. He is not deferring to the board. He’s doing what he’s told by his bosses. That he doesn’t see it this way is central to the problems with have surrounded him during his tenure in North Dakota.

Anyway, I believe the board acted wisely. While certainly higher education is a competitive enterprise, and while it makes sense to respond in some fashion to South Dakota’s initiative, we cannot simply give university presidents a blank check with no accountability to the taxpayers. If, say, Bresciani gets into a price war with other institutions in our region that’s going to have an impact on his institution’s finances.

The expectation would no doubt be that any resulting shortfalls in revenues be made up by the taxpayers.

Nobody working in state government should have that sort of authority without some oversight, checks, and balances.

But back, now, to Burgum’s proposed changes to how the university system is governed. He’d see the current SBHE replaced with four boards – one representing NDSU, one representing UND, one representing the other nine institutions in the NDUS, and one “super board” made up of members of the other three.

This would essentially give NDSU it’s own board. A board which would have been unlikely, in the opinion of many observers including this one, to stand up to the demands for carte blanche from Bresciani.

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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