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LLOYD OMDAHL: Governing higher ed: Here we go again

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In the upcoming November general election, North Dakota voters will consider the Legislature’s proposal to abolish the present Board of Higher Education and replace it with a full-time, three-member commission.

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This won’t be the first time the state has addressed the issue of higher education governance. We did it in 1915, 1919 and 1938.

The 1889 state constitution authorized the Legislature to launch the state universities and colleges, and the Legislature created governing boards to oversee each institution.

UND was governed by a five-member board of trustees, a board that was limited to 12 meetings and 24 days per year.

The “normal” schools at Mayville, N.D., and Valley City, N.D., had a joint board of 12 trustees but with separate five-member boards of management for each.

The “academy of science” at Wahpeton, N.D., had a board of five members, three of whom were appointed, with the state treasurer and superintendent of public instruction serving as ex-officio members.

The agriculture college (now North Dakota State University) had a board of seven trustees limited to six meetings per year.

The industrial school at Ellendale, N.D., had a board of five members.

All of the boards were appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate, and their powers were subject to legislative change.

The independent governing boards lasted until 1915, when the Legislature created a single board of regents for all of the universities and colleges.

This board lasted until 1919, when the board of administration was created and given the authority to run all of the educational as well as the penal and charitable institutions.

(Somehow, the Legislature must have reasoned that there was, or should be, some commonality among the education institutions, the state penitentiary and the state hospital.)

The board of administration consisted of three members appointed by the governor, with the superintendent of public instruction and the commissioners of agriculture and labor added as ex-officio members.

Then in the highly partisan 1930s, then-Gov. William Langer tried to use the board for political fund-raising. This raised the ire of the alumni of the educational institutions.

They went to work in 1938 and successfully launched an amendment to the constitution, removing control of the colleges and universities from politics by taking the institutions of higher learning away from the board of administration and legislative control.

So, here we are in 2014, looking at a new proposal to change governance of the institutions of higher learning. This time, we are not looking at boards of trustees made up of laypersons but a small board of three full-time administrators.

Throughout the country, the norm for managing these institutions is an appointed board of laypersons. The proposal before us in November deviates substantially from common governing pattern.

At some point in our discussion about the full-time commission, we will have to ask ourselves what we expect from a governing system. What has the Board of Higher Education failed to deliver that a three-member, full-time commission will provide?

This will not be a simple question, because most of the players in higher education policy are in disagreement over expectations. This is shown by our treatment of the management function. We have fired people for asserting their roles as chancellors. We consider it a title and not a job description.

The North Dakota political culture does not accept centralization or assertive management. We want decentralization and participatory decision-making.

If this point is made effectively in the upcoming debate, the measure has an uphill fight. 

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