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Doug Burgum touts outside funding model for North Dakota universities

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum signs an executive order creating a task force to examine the state's higher education structure Nov. 7 in Bismarck. IMAGE: FORUM NEWS SERVICE

North Dakota higher education could take some cues from Arizona, said Gov. Doug Burgum Friday at UND.

Burgum said he and a group from North Dakota State University have met with Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, to learn how the large public university has adapted in a national higher education landscape of limited state funding and a more tenuous pool of traditional 18-24-year-old students. Much of what the governor described of the ASU meeting was based in where and how that institution draws its revenue.

"When President Crow took over 15 years ago at ASU they were receiving 65 percent of their funding from the state of Arizona—and today they receive 9 percent," Burgum said. "What (Crow) described ... was that they went from an agency model where, if you're an agency, you're like any other agency and you kind of become like a ward of the state. You go to Bismarck, in our case, every two years, and you say, 'I've got these needs,' but everyone else does too."

Burgum was on the Grand Forks campus as part of a tour of the institutions in the North Dakota University System. His visit to UND included a meeting with school leaders to hear presentations of the university's "Grand Challenges" initiative, a research push divided into broad categories such as rural health and unmanned aerial systems. As currently planned, the challenges are intended to be comprehensive to draw researchers from across diverse areas of the university. The staff and faculty members who described the challenges to the governor ended each presentation with a ballpark estimate of state dollars they hoped to request in the next legislative session—requests backed up by projections of the return on investment the state might see over the long term for investments in the research.

Burgum seemed to appreciate that final point, taking it as evidence that UND was looking to the broader economic context of state-funded research and development.

He even suggested the dollar amounts sought by the challenge leaders were too low given the potential impact of their work, adding that he would prefer to reallocate operational funds to cover early research that could one day support themselves independently through grants and outside partnerships.

Such partnerships are one of the hallmarks of ASU. The Arizona school is one of the largest in the country and started out this academic year with more than 100,000 enrolled students, about 30,000 of whom are online-only. University leaders say their recent growth is on track to meet a 2025 growth target of 125,000 enrolled students.

The Southwestern university has also routinely been named by the U.S. News and World Report as among a list of "most innovative" schools, a select group determined by nominations from leaders of other institutions of higher education. That status came in part from the growth of ASU's online presence as well as the school's targeting of public-private partnerships designed to pull outside investments into university assets.

Burgum, long an advocate of all those things, said ASU had "re-engineered their system" to a more enterprising model that North Dakota would do well to emulate, all the better to ride out disruptions to the state budget.

"They didn't do it by being better salesmen to the state," he said of ASU, "they did it by listening to the demand signals from the market."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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