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Donald Poochigian: Focused on N.D.’s growth, UND becomes business school

GRAND FORKS — Neither the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education nor local media appearing disposed, I am informing Herald readers of a fundamental change in UND’s educational focus.

Traditionally, North Dakota State University focused on technology, and UND on arts and sciences. Abandoning its arts and sciences focus, UND now is duplicating NDSU’s technology focus. Why both institutions need to exist goes unexplained.

Thus, as announced a few days ago, student loan forgiveness is available to UND graduates employed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, with no commensurate loan forgiveness available to UND graduates employed in other fields.

Weekly summaries of UND academic research virtually never include research or activity by the arts or social sciences.

This is consistent with the three statements of policy issued by the state board since 2001, wherein the sole objective of the North Dakota University System is “economic development.”

Apparently, the STEM disciplines, unlike the liberal and fine arts and social sciences, are considered especially compatible with economic development.

Nationally, this alteration in the perceived purpose of public higher education began in the 1980s.

Previously, the purpose of public higher education was said to be “the preparation of the leaders of a democracy.” Subsequently, the purpose of perceived public higher education has been said to be “business.”

Franklin Roosevelt created artists’ jobs; Barack Obama ridicules art historians.

Though the arts and social sciences are considered essential to democratic participation, the STEM disciplines with their perceived ties to business activity have superceded them. Concurrent at UND is the business programs’ expansion into a soon-to-be-constructed new facility. The expensive history of the ill-fated REAC building also reflects this trend.

Functional conception of relevant programmatic activity is limited, though.

Notably, former UND President Charles Kupchella sought to take a $1.5 million donation for a chair in business ethics in the Department of Philosophy and Religion and redirect it to the Wellness Center.

Disappointingly, the proffered contribution went unmade. But the episode shows the continuing dismissal of UND’s historic liberal-arts focus.

Sadly, the local media shares this dismissive attitude. For evidence, look to the complete lack of coverage of the recent UND Writers Conference by the local electronic media, a conference shortened by UND administrative funding cuts.

Indeed, local media coverage of the liberal arts in general is so limited that two years ago, a student stumbling upon our departmental office said dumbfoundedly to me, “I didn’t know there was a Department of Philosophy and Religion at UND!” Indeed.

Why this dismissal of the liberal arts, fine arts and social sciences, I do not understand. In a meeting of business leaders and lawmakers in December, Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of The Chamber of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, all but declared Arts and even Sciences to be not “relevant.” On another occasion, House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, declared oil-field plumbers “useful.”

Yes, North Dakotans are sensitive about economic development, but also about our national reputation as an intellectual wasteland. Family and friends elsewhere reinforce this sensitivity, one expressing, “North Dakota is where ideas go to die.”

Why those bringing about UND’s intellectual decline are insensitive to this, I do not know. What I do know is being implemented is the realization of this national image. For myself, I am shamed by this embarrassment. Whether you, Herald reader, are also shamed, I leave to you to determine.

Poochigian is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at UND.