The Fight Over NDSU’s Dunbar Hall Reveals an Ugly Truth About Our Priorities in Higher Education

Fargo Forum file photo

Firefighters stand outside of NDSU's Dunbar Hall in December, 2017.

Dunbar Hall is a chemistry lab building on the North Dakota State University campus. It’s also in embarrassingly poor condition, and has been for some time.

Back in 2014 the Associated Press was reporting that people who work in the building had to lug water because the pipes didn’t work.

In June of 2017 fire inspectors found significant violations in the building.

In December of 2017 the building literally caught fire.

“For 20 years we’ve had metallic dust particles blowing out of the ventilation, covering our labs,” Greg Cook, chairman of the chemistry department, told the NDSU Spectrum in a report earlier this month.

Things are bad.

Really bad.

This session the Legislature is poised to appropriate some money to fix the building. The bill emerged from the Senate earlier this year with a $51.2 million appropriation, but the House wanted less. Negotiators from each chamber have hashed out a compromise this week. “A House-Senate conference committee agreed to $40 million in bonding, $8 million in cash and authorization to raise $3.2 million for a total of $51.2 million,” John Hageman reports.

The Senate has approved the compromise. Now the House has to sign off before it goes to Governor Doug Burgum’s desk.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Just so we’re clear raising $37.2 million for a practice facility for the football team is entirely possible, but $3.2 million for improvements to a chemistry lab where running water is a problem is a bridge too far.[/mks_pullquote]

Let’s hope the chemistry students faculty at NDSU get a better environment to work in soon. But something state Rep. Michael Howe, a Republican from Fargo, said about this situation reveals an ugly truth about priorities in higher education, both on-campus and among those off campus who donate money to the institution.

“West Fargo Republican Rep. Michael Howe has warned that it wasn’t feasible to raise that much money for a general education building,” Hageman reports.

As mentioned above, the legislation authorizes $3.2 million in fundraising. Howe says that may be too heavy a lift for an academic building.

He’s probably right.

Which is pathetic.

For some perspective, consider less than a year ago the NDSU Athletic Department began a campaign to raise $37.2 million for a new football practice facility. “One thing that has separated Bison Athletics from other institutions across the nation is our relentless commitment to excellence,” athletic director Matt Larsen said in university announcement about the campaign.

Just so we’re clear, raising $37.2 million for a practice facility for the football team is entirely possible, but $3.2 million for improvements to a chemistry lab where running water is a problem is a bridge too far

If only we were as relentlessly committed to excellence in academics as we are in football.

What this illustrates are some tragically poor priorities. The fundraising networks which support NDSU are very interested in football, and far less interested in academics, despite the latter being the core mission of the university since its founding.

The student athletes play and practice in glittering facilities, with ample access to top-shelf equipment, while attended by a regiment of coaches and trainers.

The chemistry students, meanwhile, are wiping metallic dust off their labs and hoping the place doesn’t catch on fire.

We all – from the public to the alumni networks, from campus leadership to state elected leaders – need to get some better priorities.