What's The Best Way To Reform North Dakota's University System?


The system for governing North Dakota’s university system is fundamentally flawed, and the controversy over Chancellor Hamid Shirvani proves it. Whatever you may think of Shirvani, it’s become very clear that anyone in his position intent on actually governing the universities rather than acting as a sort of rubber stamp for what the university presidents want will be attacked pushed out.

This is why I’ve come to the conclusion that Shirvani needs to stay. Not just because the accusations against him range from petty, at best, to scurrilous at worse but because it must be made clear to the university presidents and their stoolies in the legislature that the State Board of Higher Education and the Chancellor are in charge, no the other way around.

But setting all that aside, the legislature is considering a number of bills that would make serious changes to the way the university system is governed. These proposals are all the more interesting because, in setting off a pie-throwing contest with Chancellor Shirvani, the university presidents have made it more clear than ever that this sort of reform is badly needed.

Here’s a run-down of what’s on the table:

HCR3008 – Introduced by Rep. Mark Dosch, this amendment would remove the state’s schools from the state constitution. The current language of the constitution is out of date, with the schools having long since outgrown the names and intent expressed. The amendment would also give the state the much needed flexibility to close some of the extraneous schools. Because it’s absolutely ridiculous that a state with less than 700,000 citizens has no fewer than eleven state campuses. This resolution hasn’t yet been voted on.

HCR3047 – Introduced by Rep. Al Carlson, this constitutional amendment is similar to one he introduced last session except that this iteration, unlike the previous one, doesn’t include the K-12 school system. Rather, this amendment replaces the Chancellor and the State Board of Higher Education with a Director of the Department of Higher Education who is appointed to three-year terms by the governor. The governor could remove the director at any time with cause (that’s important, currently the governor can’t remove his appointments to the SBHE), and the director would administer the university within the scope of laws passed by the legislature (also important as the current structure of the university system pretty much puts it outside of the reach of the legislature in all policy areas except budgeting).

HCR3042 – Introduced by Rep. Rick Becker, this constitutional amendment would replace the Chancellor with an elected Commissioner of Higher Education who would serve no more than two four-year terms. The Commissioner would be advised by a board of “seven, nine or eleven” members appointed by the governor. The board would advise the Commissioner, but the final policy decisions would be set not by the board but by the Commissioner. That’s a reversal of the status quo where the Chancellor works for the SBHE.

HCR3044 – Introduced by Rep. Andrew Maragos, this constitutional amendment wouldn’t change the way the university system is currently governed at all, would rather allow that any official action of the SBHE passed by a roll call vote of board members be eligible for referendum by the voters. Existing laws for referring a law passed by the legislature would apply, except for the limit on referendums initiated more than 90 days after the policy takes effect.

SCR4028 – Introduced by Senator Joe Miller, this constitutional amendment would replace the existing SBHE with a Council of Regents consisting of the Governor, the Superintendent of Public Schools, the Ag Commissioner and eight non-voting members including two appointed by the Governor, three appointed by the House Majority Leader and three appointed by the Senate Majority Leader. Like Rep. Dosch’s reoslution, Senator Miller’s proposal removes mention of the university locations from the constitution (the proposals from Becker and Carlson maintain them).

Reading the tea leaves a bit, I suspect Rep. Dosch’s and Senator Miller’s proposals will likely be cast aside because they remove mention of the universities from the state constitution. Reforming the university system will be hard enough without setting off a parochial turf war.

Rep. Maragos’ bill has just one sponsor, himself, which tells me that it’s not likely to pass either.

That leaves the proposals from Rep. Carlson and Rep. Becker. If it comes down to these two proposals, I’d give Rep. Becker’s resolution the edge if only because it maintains a board of sorts while Carlson’s does away with it entirely. I think there may be majority support in the legislature for reforming the university system, but I’m not sure how willing most will be to put the entire system under one executive appointee. Especially when the current structure of the university system is the result of a governor from the last century who abused his power over that system.

Becker’s plan keeps the system independent of the executive branch while making it accountable to the people and their elected legislators.