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Mike Jacobs: Self-inflicted wound to higher ed

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark R. Hagerott visits with the Editorial Board in 2016 at the Grand Forks Herald. Herald file photo.

As predicted, controversy erupted at last week's Board of Higher Education meeting, and as predicted Chancellor Mark Hagerott survived — but just barely. Turmoil is not unique to North Dakota's higher education system. Controversy exists in other states as well. In North Dakota, though, controversy recurs.

Why is this?

One reason may be that North Dakotans care so deeply about higher education. The evidence of this is persuasive.

North Dakota has one college for every 68,000 residents, a total of 11, far more than many states of much greater population.

The state consistently ranks among the highest of the states in per capita spending on higher education. Before the budget cuts in the last legislative session, it ranked first. In this decade it hasn't dropped below third.

Nearly two-thirds of North Dakota high school graduates go directly to college. That's among the nation's highest, too.

This suggests strong support for the main mission of the higher education system, which is educating students. This year, enrollment in state colleges is pushing 45,000 students.

There's another reason that North Dakotans care about colleges. They're seen as economic development tools. This became clear as early as 1883, when George Walsh, Grand Forks' delegate to the territorial Legislature, drew the long straw and chose the university for his city. At statehood in 1889, Fargo interests fought to have the state's land grant school located there. This grew into North Dakota State University.

By 1903, the state had five public colleges within 60 miles of its eastern border. In the next decade colleges were added at Minot and Dickinson in western North Dakota. Later still, the state took over community colleges in Bismarck, Williston and Devils Lake. That took a statewide vote, as well.

What's more, North Dakotans have consistently defended the colleges. Only one has been closed, at Ellendale, and then only after fire caused extensive damage to the campus. Otherwise, attempts to cut back the system have failed.

Still a third reason for North Dakotans to care so deeply about the colleges is that they helped the state's surplus population find good living elsewhere. For decades, young people enrolled in the colleges, graduated, then found jobs somewhere else. The colleges and universities were a lifeline leading away from a foundering economy.

North Dakota found a way to combine the dual goals of education and economic development. Through tuition reciprocity, the state attracted non-residents, especially Minnesotans, to its campuses. The outcome has been positive in at least three ways. It brought more students onto the campuses and more money into the system. This allowed a stronger system with a wider range of courses than would have been possible otherwise. It exposed North Dakotans to students from elsewhere and it made it possible for the state to attract new residents.

There is therefore no cause to doubt higher education's importance to North Dakota, nor to discount the state's commitment to its colleges and universities. The reason for controversy lies elsewhere. It lies with the system of governance.

The attempt to create a system of higher education rather than a loose amalgamation of colleges and universities began in the late 1980s, and it has been controversial ever since. The search for causes need not be a long one.

College presidents didn't embrace the system because it subordinated them to a chancellor. Nor did legislators didn't like the system because it isolated them from appropriations for individual campuses, once a kind of bazaar where lawmakers traded votes for buildings.

These difficulties might have been overcome, but no effective governing board emerged to manage the centralized system. As one legislator said in the wake of the latest eruption in the system office, the board doesn't function well, no one accepts the chancellor's role and so there is no system.

Voters seem to accept that. In 2014, they turned down a constitutional amendment that would have replaced the board with a three-member body appointed by and reporting to the governor.

The latest controversy arose when Chancellor Hagerott fired the vice chancellor, a woman who enjoyed the support of legislators and college officials. Soon after, a critical assessment of his supervisory practices became public, including charges of gender bias, and hiring cronies.

Hagerott might have survived all of that, except that his response included a request for an investigation of an unrelated and largely forgotten incident, interim UND President Ed Schafer's endorsement of a candidate in last year's Republican gubernatorial contest.

Without that addition to the bill of particulars, Hagerott might have escaped with a verbal reprimand. Instead he got a split decision, a tie on a vote of confidence.

This is a self-inflicted wound that has left the chancellor himself weakened, and it has damaged the board and the system as well.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald. Email him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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