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Longstanding legacy: North Dakota campuses a result of politics, early expectations of state’s founders

Gabriel Salander, a senior from Larimore, N.D., walks across campus Friday at Mayville State University. The university is one of many in the North Dakota University System with an origin in the state Constitution. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

If you build it, they will come.

The adage doesn't just apply to magic baseball diamonds in Kevin Costner movies. In the case of a newly minted state on the Great Plains, it also counted for colleges and universities.

Today, all but three of North Dakota's institutions of higher education are included in the state Constitution. That's a condition Tom Isern, a history professor at North Dakota State University—named in the 1889 founding document as the "agricultural college"—says is a product of ambitious framers who sought to lock down institutions and secure them from often-fickle political tides.

As a historian, Isern has turned an eye to the Northern Plains, writing on concepts of rural life and regionalism. That focus matches well with the means by which delegates to the state's first Constitutional Convention went about placing North Dakota's original public institutions.

"There are two schools of thought," for explaining the chosen locations of those facilities, Isern said. "One was political horse-trading—well, duh, it was a political meeting, so of course there was political horse-trading."

In some part, the convention provided an opportunity for delegates to win points with voters by scoring a public investment for their communities. The original higher education centers written into the Constitution are now known as UND, North Dakota State University, Valley City State University, Mayville State University, Dakota College at Bottineau and the North Dakota State College of Science, in Wahpeton. A few amendments down the line, that group expanded to add locations in the west at Minot State University and Dickinson State University.

Absent from that list are most of the two-year institutions in the North Dakota University System: Williston State College, Bismarck State College and Lake Region State College.

But there's more to it than local politicians making good for the folks back home. The original set of public institutions were scattered along the eastern half of the state, bound to the east by the Red River Valley, running west to Bottineau and south to Ellendale, in Dickey County.

The locations were far-flung, Isern said, detailing a second school of thought, but represented where the population of the young state was concentrated at that time. While Gov. Doug Burgum has questioned in the past if brick-and-mortar state institutions are the best way to go in the digital era—saying North Dakotans can embody a kind of parochialism as they "cling" too tightly to "the idea of location"—Isern said the concept of public facility as local job-creator was not a tough stretch for the framers in their day.

To that effect, the locations were seen as something to be protected, and when looking through the roster of delegates who attended the state's convention, Isern says the "majority are farmers who had a distrust of politicians."

"They wanted it settled, the locations of those institutions, and not let them be footballs in future legislative sessions," he said. As for the number of facilities included in the document, Isern attributes the total placements partly to the hopes of the delegates in attendance.

"The settlement was just getting underway at the time of the Constitutional Convention, so it was expected we'd have a healthy population," he said. The idea at the time was that institutions would be planted throughout the state, from Lisbon to Wahpeton, from Valley City to Bismarck, and the settlers would land to fill the country in between. And for the most part, Isern said, that prediction held up.

Changing roles

That's not to say things haven't changed since then.

Higher education in particular has had to remold itself to move with the times, relying more than ever on an embrace of technology and digital means of communication. Burgum has hit on that point before, stressing that that "knowledge transfer" can happen far beyond the walls of a traditional classroom or college campus.

"Economics and technology are driving change, and does our Constitution and our culture allow us to change rapidly and well or does it keep us, hold us back from taking advantage of that?" the governor mused last spring. "It's going to be a balance."

The institutions themselves have tried to make those rapid changes to keep up, even as they hew to their roots. For example, Mayville State—written into the unamended Constitution as a "state normal school," or an instructional college specific to teachers-in-training—still has a heavy emphasis on teaching. But now, the university offers more than 77 academic programs for students, many of which are available online.

To the north, Dakota College at Bottineau was placed in the Constitution with a particular mission of its own. In a state not much noted for its thick woodlands, Dakota College was placed mainly as a "school of forestry" on the edge of the Turtle Mountains.

That purpose can still be found on campus, according to college administrators Jerry Migler and Larry Brooks. But, as with the rest of the system, things at Bottineau have changed.

"We still have forestry," Migler, the campus dean, said, "but we've shifted with the times and our major focus now is on urban forestry. That tends to be where there are more jobs, where the industry has gone."

In its more recent era, Migler says, the college has sought to keep its niche as an institution where students can learn about "what we broadly call natural resources," a body of work that now includes horticulture, wildlife management and aquaponics.

Brooks, the associate dean for academic and student affairs, said the college has had to adapt its programming over the years to meet student needs. Like other peers in the NDUS, that means an enhanced focus on digital delivery and an expansion toward high-demand areas of study, such as nursing.

While the original placements of state institutions were chosen in part to accommodate the relative difficulty of quick travel in the late 1800s, Dakota College might be an example of how the state's modern institutions can leverage their network.

Migler said the Bottineau campus makes use of partnerships across the NDUS, often with the other two-year schools as well as with VCSU, to provide wider programming and services for students. And, in a collaboration of a deeper level, the college shares an affiliate campus relationship with Minot State, an arrangement that includes a single president, Steven Shirley, overseeing both campuses. The schools also share a number of administrative functions and served a combined total of about 4,000 students in 2014.

The affiliate relationship isn't a new innovation for the system, Migler said, and Dakota College was actually an original partner of NDSU until about the mid-1960s.

But where other administrative partnerships have fallen by the wayside, Migler said the link across the state's northern corridor has been a boon for both campuses. And despite the ease of digital connection reshaping our society, both men still take as a given the importance of a physical location.

"There's no question that technology is a disruptive force, and we see that in other businesses and industries," Migler said, speaking to the role of online delivery versus classroom instruction on the modern campus. "But one of the ways we look at it is that it's not an either-or type of thing—it's both. We have students that succeed there, and students who will fail."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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