What's Wrong With Giving The North Dakota University System Some Flexibility?


Today Grand Forks Herald Opinion Editor Tom Dennis engages in a bit of fear mongering about higher education measure North Dakota voters will vote on in November. Dennis is a reliable homer for the universities, and the university system itself is clearly spooked about what could happen. Because, let’s face it, hardly a month goes by without some news about wasteful, duplicitous and at times downright fraudulent activity in the university system.

The ballot measure – HCR3047 which you can read here – would eliminate the current part time State Board of Higher Education and replace it with a full time, three-member commission. It would also make it explicit in the constitution that the universities are bound by laws passed by the legislature (in the past university officials have suggested that higher ed policy is beyond the scope of the legislature) and, as Dennis points out, it loosens constitutional language mandating the existence of the institutions:

The constitution’s existing language lists schools by name and assigns their locations. That anchors, for example, “the state university and school of mines” in Grand Forks.

But if the amendment passes in November, the links in the anchor chains would be changed into paper clips. For the new language simply lists 11 communities and says they’ll be home to higher ed “sites.”

So, what exactly is a “site”?

Well, it could be a traditional campus, as can be found in each of those 11 communities today.

But could it instead be a stand-alone warehouse owned by the university system? Or a storefront? Or Room 4B in an office complex — with no college campus at all?

Dennis warns voters that efforts to amend this constitutional language has failed before. Dennis thinks North Dakotans will likely be against it again.

But it’s worth mentioning two things:

First, the defeat of Measure 1 in 1998, which would have removed all mention of the universities from the constitution, was almost 16 years ago. Yes, it lost 64 percent to 36 percent, but that doesn’t mean it would lose in 2014.

Because, second, a lot has changed with higher education since 1998. Tuition has skyrocketed. Taxpayer appropriations have skyrocketed. The campuses have become lavish. The university administration has grown decadent. Many parents and students are questioning whether or not a college degree is worth the time, expense and debt it takes to get one.

Keep in mind, the NDUS is a system that is gobbling up half a billion more tax dollars per biennium today than a decade ago, but enrollment has only gone up by roughly 3,000.

The North Dakota University System doesn’t have the same credibility today that it had back in 1998. There is a growing sense that it is bloated, and out of touch, and I think voters may be a lot more welcoming to some flexibility when it comes to how the system is situated across the state and how it is governed.