Regional leaders in higher education showed early optimism Tuesday after Gov. Doug Burgum launched a task force to assess how North Dakota campuses are meeting the state's needs.

Burgum described his initiative in a press conference as a push to identify best practices for governance of the North Dakota University System that can be distilled into recommendations for long-term improvements. The system is currently governed by the State Board of Higher Education, a body that also sets policy for North Dakota's 11 campuses.

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UND President Mark Kennedy said after the conference that he liked seeing Burgum prioritize the evolving landscape of higher education.

Kennedy himself has targeted on national trends in the sector and has set many of his public comments about UND within that wider context. He says the school's own strategic plan is rooted in concepts highlighted by Burgum, such as a heightened need to reach students online while addressing new sources of competition.

"I'm very pleased the governor is putting together a committee to look at how does the state adapt, just as we've internally needed to adapt," said Kennedy, adding that he's told both Burgum and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford that "we stand ready to help in whatever way we can in the process of this evaluation."

Kennedy said that he'd personally encourage the committee to consider a growing societal reliance on technology, as well as the related points of discovery and research. When discussing the initiative's focus on system governance, Kennedy seemed unconcerned about the possibility of change, saying he "can't imagine any (model) that (Burgum) would consider that would be detrimental to UND."

The president said the university would encourage the task force to evaluate the diverse governance models used in other state systems to determine the right fit for North Dakota.

MSU 'open-minded'

Notice of the Tuesday press conference went out to many in the NDUS via email Monday night.

Mayville State University President Gary Hagen said the announcement "seemed to be sudden," but described that as a sign of the times in a fast-paced society.

Hagen was still waiting for more information on the task force and its mission after the conference, though at first glance he said its goal of assessing the system's governance model was "a reasonable question to ask" given state budgeting issues and the changing nature of higher education.

"I'm certainly open-minded, and we'll see where this goes," said Hagen. He believed the forward-looking nature of Burgum's initiative resonated with an adaptation process that has been ongoing at the MSU campus.

The governor has personally advocated for a more digitized approach to higher education that de-emphasizes the need for brick-and-mortar campus locations. MSU is one of the smallest four-year institutions within the NDUS, and while any system downsizing could jeopardize colleges with fewer students, Hagen pointed to his school's near-doubling of enrollments over the past decade. He said that growth, combined with curriculum changes designed to meet regional workforce needs in areas such as education and nursing, is a sign MSU remains a viable location between the two major universities in the Red River Valley.

"It's a situation where the governor has had a call to action and wants to make sure we're prepared for the future," said Hagen. "That's what strategic planners do, and we've certainly changed a lot at our institution to do those things already. We're nimble, flexible and I think we can play a part however we need to."