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Connie Triplett: Is UND planning to strangle the golden goose?

Connie Triplett

GRAND FORKS — Long-time director of the UND Energy and Environmental Research Center, Gerald Groenewold, currently is on administrative leave with pay, but without explanation. This column is not about him.

I write today out of concern for future of the institution that is the EERC:

  •  For the 250 employees and their families;
  •  For the clients around the world who rely on the good work of those employees;
  •  For the community of Grand Forks, which has benefited from the presence of those talented, diverse, creative and well-paid employees;
  •  For the local hospitality industry, which has benefited from hosting thousands of national and international visitors through the years;
  •  For our congressional delegation, state legislators and state agencies, who rely on the EERC to provide objective, high-quality science on matters of public policy regarding the energy sector and the environment; and
  •  For the reputation of the state, which has been enhanced through the worldwide reputation of the EERC.

The UND administration appears to be executing an internal coup against the EERC. Academic Vice-President Tom DiLorenzo appears to have been given the reins by UND President Bob Kelley.

For those readers who may have wondered through the years what makes the EERC special, I am going to spell it out today and explain why they should care what is happening to the institution this week.

The EERC was the brainchild of former UND President Tom Clifford, a truly visionary leader. When President Ronald Reagan de-federalized the lignite research facility located on the east edge of UND’s campus, Clifford saw the potential. (The federal facility had been built on land previously owned by UND, which reverted back to UND when the federal government had no further use for it.)

With the able assistance of then-Dean of Engineering Alan Fletcher, UND began the process of building a world-class research entity.

In 1987 — about four years later — the project was teetering on financial failure. Transitions can be difficult. That’s when Fletcher and Clifford offered the directorship to Gerald Groenewold.

It was Fletcher who recommended that the EERC director report directly to the UND president. But both Fletcher and Clifford understood that it was necessary to the success of the EERC that it be structured differently than an academic college.

The EERC is supported entirely by revenue from clients (competitively-awarded contracts from federal agencies and state governments, as well as contracts with hundreds of private corporations). It has no state-appropriated dollars. Employees are paid on a separate salary scale, which is generally higher than the rest of the university.

But EERC employees have considerably less job security than other university employees because each employee’s job literally depends on the next contract.

For those who can handle the stress of such uncertainty, it is a highly motivating construct. The result is a tight-knit team of bright, creative people who have the opportunity and the responsibility to build their own future every day.

Like virtually all successful business people, EERC employees understand that their best chance at long-term success is through satisfied repeat customers. They have evolved a culture of intense productivity, professionalism, multidisciplinary teamwork and high morale.

Any attempt to integrate the EERC into an academic department will be fatal to the vision. That is not to say there is anything wrong with how the rest of the university functions. It is a fact that the academic portion of the university has an entirely different set of realities and demands.

The two most basic realities underpinning the rest of the university system are: (1) that it exists primarily to educate students, with research as a secondary concern; and (2) that it is largely dependent on state-appropriated dollars, student tuition and the availability of federal financial aid, all of which means it has to be very sensitive to the limits of taxpayer indulgence.

As a state legislator, I have some understanding of the challenges faced by university administrators in trying to balance long-term planning against the uncertainties of a two-year budgeting cycle and the varying demands of legislative and governance inconsistencies. As a state, we can and should do better by our institutions of higher education.

On the other hand, it is hard to imagine how to improve on the EERC as a model for contract research unless it would be to separate it entirely from the university system.

Triplett represents District 18 in the North Dakota Senate. She has been married to Groenewold for nearly 33 years.