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OUR OPINION: Finding ‘best’ candidates for higher ed board

Perhaps there was a time, years ago, when governors could make appointments to the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education based on patronage and party loyalty.

No longer. Today, choosing members for the higher ed board ranks among the governor’s most important duties. That’s because the higher education system has become such a big and important part of state government.

The system’s growth has been justified, thanks to the labor force’s ever-growing need for post-secondary education, as well as higher ed’s vital role in fostering North Dakota’s prosperity and quality of life.

Still, it makes for a daunting challenge for the “citizen soldiers” on the board. They must juggle complicated management tasks, multi-billion-dollar budgets and demands from vocal and powerful constituencies, while trying not to wilt under the klieg lights of media glare.

All of which means the governor should strive to appoint the best candidates. A seat on the higher ed board can’t just be a reward for faithful service. It’s an executive position. Its holder should be a proven leader, manager and achiever who can make a positive difference.

And for Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who has six candidates to choose from for two seats on the board, that’s worth keeping uppermost in mind.

At this point in its history, the board especially needs members who’ll assert the board’s authority on behalf of the state. That means all of the state — not only the colleges and universities themselves, but also lawmakers and taxpayers, who have some reason to feel they’ve been kept too low on the board’s priority list.

The best evidence of this can be found in the comments of Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, over past few years. Holmberg has served in the Senate since 1977, and as befits a senator from the home of UND, he has been a great friend of higher education throughout.

But Holmberg’s frustration with the board has been obvious in recent years. A turning point came in 2011, when lawmakers removed tuition caps they previously had imposed, thinking that the board could be trusted to limit tuition increases on its own.

A trust the board promptly eviscerated by letting North Dakota State University hike tuition by 8.8 percent.

“Disappointment is such a weak word,” Holmberg said at the time.

And lest readers think this stemmed from a bias against NDSU, Holmberg’s more recent and more serious concerns involve UND. The REAC building’s story has been told and retold in the Herald. Today, it’s enough to note that Holmberg remains frustrated with the board, as shown by his most recent proposal to force the universities to dedicate much of their state funding to instruction, not administration.

When the senior state senator from UND’s home town starts drafting such bills, board members should take notice. Because to paraphrase something Dalrymple himself once said on another occasion, they’re losing the confidence of people whose confidence they need.

Dalrymple travels the state widely, talks with many North Dakotans and keeps his ear to the ground. Here’s hoping he has picked up on North Dakotans’ simultaneous support for their universities, and their call for the board to more strongly oversee and economically manage the system — in short, to lead.