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Our view: Kennedy and Bresciani could truly make history, but the hard work lies ahead

UND President Mark Kennedy makes a point during a Q&A with NDSU President Dean Bresciani Thursday. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Herald editorial board

As Mark Kennedy and Dean Bresciani finished a joint presentation Thursday before the Economic Development Corp. and others in Grand Forks, two things quickly became apparent.

Kennedy, president at UND, and Bresciani, president at North Dakota State University, spoke to a group of about 75 and discussed their goal of securing $100 million in heretofore unbudgeted state funds for research at their respective universities.

The unique venture — it's not often North Dakotans hear a combined appeal from NDSU and UND — struck a chord with many in the audience.

The two takeaways: Kennedy and Bresciani seem to be finding early support for the idea, which they say will strengthen the state's two research universities and result in economic development throughout North Dakota. And second, these early discussions are being held in friendly territory and should not necessarily be used as a thermometer to gauge statewide support.

The presidents seek $100 million over the next biennium, to be split down the middle by UND and NDSU. At present, the state's preliminary budget calls for $10 million for research and $5 million for workforce, so the UND-NDSU proposal is a dramatic increase.

Yet because of unexpected improvements in the oil economy, unplanned money exists. And we consider a historic investment in UND and NDSU a legitimate, innovative and even realistic request that will benefit not just UND and Grand Forks, but the entire state.

Specifically, the dollars would be directed toward research, mirroring successful investments in states like Texas. The presidents contend that fine-tuning the research missions at NDSU and UND would result in economic impact statewide that would multiply the dollars invested. Bresciani said Thursday the goal is "to change the economic trajectory and business diversification in the state of North Dakota. And to make history."

The influx of dollars also would be used for salary increases — which the presidents say is important for research — and deferred maintenance that is rapidly growing on the campuses.

What kind of return could come from investment in research? As noted in a Herald editorial earlier this summer, a simple 1 percentage point increase in oil extraction could conceivably result in billions of dollars per year more in state oil production revenue. That increase naturally would flow into economic buckets throughout the state. Research at UND could spur the whole thing.

The Valley Prosperity Partnership — an organization dedicated to improving economic opportunity in eastern North Dakota — backs the plan. Keith Lund, CEO of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., and EDC Chairwoman Tammy Peterson said they support the proposal, although the full board has not formally taken a position.

Gov. Doug Burgum, during a visit to Grand Forks earlier this year, told UND leaders that he and his administration "are big believers in research." The Fargo native seems excited about research potential.

Early excitement exists in eastern North Dakota, but that's the easy portion of the process, since Kennedy and Bresciani have home-court advantage in the Red River Valley.

Longtime state Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, told the Herald after Thursday's event that he thinks investing in research is a good idea. We asked if he would back the proposal legislatively.

"I would, but I have to see the grand scheme of things," he said.

In other words, he likes the idea but knows there are a lot of other outstretched hands seeking state funds, too. He knows he is not a member of the state Board of Higher Education, and he knows he's just one of 141 members of the Legislature, many of whom will feel an urge to be loyal to their own regional projects, universities and constituencies.

If Kennedy and Bresciani want to make history—and we believe this proposal could—they will need to be even more convincing out west as they are in the valley. Their presentation Thursday was void of in-depth data, information slides and the sort. If they plan an equally informal approach elsewhere that approach would be wise to reconsider, since it may take hard data, historical examples and return-on-investment predictions to convince the nonbelievers.

As they venture out of UND and NDSU territory, it will be imperative to remind residents and decision-makers in central and western North Dakota that there are only two research institutions in North Dakota. Then, they must convince them that enhanced research work done at those institutions will, indeed, benefit the entire state.

Disclaimer: Herald Publisher Korrie Wenzel is a member of the Economic Development Corp. board of directors.