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OUR OPINION: Amendment weakens colleges’ constitutional protection

Voters should be aware that the proposal would remove the names of N.D.’s colleges and universities from the constitution.

So, this is interesting:

As North Dakotans know, there will be a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would replace the State Board of Higher Education with a three-member commission.

But that’s not all the amendment would do.

The amendment would create the new commission by replacing Section 6 of Article VIII of the North Dakota Constitution with new language. Here’s how the new text would begin:

“A three-member commission of higher education is created for the purpose of overseeing and administering the provision of public higher education at sites that include Bismarck, Bottineau, Devils Lake, Dickinson, Fargo, Grand Forks, Mayville, Minot, Valley City, Wahpeton, and Williston.”

As readers might guess, the current text of Article VIII, Section 6 is the one in which “a board of higher education, to be officially known as the state board of higher education, is hereby created.”

Now, here’s the thing:

The current text continues, declaring that the board’s primary duty is “the control and administration of the following state educational institutions, to wit:

“The state university and school of mines, at Grand Forks, with their substations.

“The state agricultural college and experiment station, at Fargo, with their substations.

“The school of science, at Wahpeton.”

And so on, listing “the state normal schools and teachers colleges, at Valley City, Mayville, Minot and Dickinson,” “the school of forestry, at Bottineau,” “and such other state institutions as may hereafter be established.”

Do you see the difference?

The constitution’s existing language lists schools by name and assigns their locations. That anchors, for example, “the state university and school of mines” in Grand Forks.

But if the amendment passes in November, the links in the anchor chains would be changed into paper clips. For the new language simply lists 11 communities and says they’ll be home to higher ed “sites.”

So, what exactly is a “site”?

Well, it could be a traditional campus, as can be found in each of those 11 communities today.

But could it instead be a stand-alone warehouse owned by the university system? Or a storefront? Or Room 4B in an office complex — with no college campus at all?

Remember, North Dakotans voted on something like this before, and the vote in part reflected those fears.

In 1998, Measure 1 would have removed the constitution’s references to its eight institutions. Supporters said the board needed flexibility if it wanted to sell a campus or convert one to a private college.

Opponents noted that the new boss really would be the Legislature, once the institutions had lost their constitutional protection. So, the measure was “a significant transfer of power from North Dakota voters to the Legislature,” as one critic pointed out.

North Dakotans remember what happened next:

Measure 1 got hammered, losing by a vote of 64 percent to 36 percent.

“In Traill County, home of Mayville State University, 90 percent of voters opposed the measure,” the Herald reported.

“Voters in Grand Forks and Cass Counties — home to the state’s largest universities — also rejected the measure. …

“The measure carried only in Burleigh County, home of the state capitol and Bismarck State College, a campus not written into the state constitution. The vote in Burleigh County was 11,680 to 9,923, or 54 percent yes.”

The lawmakers who wrote this year’s proposed amendment know that history.

So, why did they remove the names of the institutions? Are they trying to do by stealth what they failed to do by ballot in 1998?

This year’s debate mostly will be about replacing the higher-education board. But that isn’t all it should be about, and North Dakota voters should know that there’s more to the higher-ed amendment than meets the eye.