MINOT -- The presidents of the state’s two largest universities are hitting the road this week to talk about the importance of research and to ask for support for their proposal for $100 million in the next biennium that would go toward research.
UND President Mark Kennedy and North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani outlined their proposal for the state to invest $100 million in research at the two campuses over a two-year period to lawmakers and businesspeople in Minot Wednesday morning. Each school would get $25 million a year under the proposal. It was their first joint to trip to western North Dakota.
Bresciani said he feels the universities could be doing a “better job” for North Dakota when it comes to research and diversifying the economy of North Dakota if they had more money to work with.
“We don’t see this as a UND initiative or a NDSU initiative, this is a state of North Dakota initiative,” Bresciani said.
The state, which is heavily dependent on revenue from the agriculture and energy sectors, can often get stuck in a “cyclical up and down,” Kennedy said. When agriculture and energy are in a good place, so is the state, Bresciani said, but when either of those have a downturn the state can struggle.
“The best path of getting out of the cyclical trap is to diversify the economy and the best path to diversifying the economy is investing in research,” Kennedy said.
Additionally, the presidents said increased state funding would help to generate increased federal and corporate support, which could generate more money for the state later.
Minot Sen. Randy Burckhard, a Republican, said he appreciated the opportunity to speak with the presidents.
“I thought this was a great opportunity for us in Minot and the western part of the state to hear what they have to say about research and what it does for our state and the return on investment that we’ve already received and could potentially receive for our state with research dollars,” he said.
Burckhard said he believes the amount that the presidents are asking for isn’t “unreasonable.” He added that if the request were to come up in the legislative session, he would consider supporting it.
“We get all kinds of requests, and some of them wouldn’t have the kind of return on investment that this would, so I think it’s a reasonable request,” he said. “I think we do have to do more research that would benefit our state. Our economy does need to be diversified.”
While some legislators have been receptive to the proposal, others have expressed skepticism.
House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said the state doesn’t have “a lot of extra cash laying around.” Recent revenue forecasts have predicted bumps in tax collections in the next two-year budget cycle, but Gov. Doug Burgum has pushed for a “conservative” budgeting approach.
“I don’t disagree that that would be a great investment … because that would create jobs and opportunities for North Dakotans,” Carlson said. “In the budget we have, unless there’s a funding source, I just don’t see where that’s going to happen.”
Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who chairs the Senate’s budget-writing committee, called the university presidents’ idea “intriguing” but wanted more details.
“I think that most legislators (have questions about the proposal) just because of the budget constraints we’re under and where (the money) comes from,” he said.
Holmberg’s counterpart in the House, Republican Rep. Jeff Delzer of Underwood, predicted the research proposal would be a “pretty big pull” but said “it’ll be in the mix.”
Steven Shirley, president of Minot State University, said Kennedy and Bresciani will have to convince the Legislature and the state as a whole if they want to receive the $100 million they are asking for.
Shirley said that if the research universities were to receive the $100 million, he would hope it wouldn’t mean less funding for other schools.
“We’re obviously a system of 11 campuses and so that would be a concern for any campus, I think that would be a natural concern,” he said. “I would hope that if there were any investment made from what they were proposing today that it wouldn’t be at the sacrifice of any of the other campuses and, of course, I would hope that President Bresciani and President Kennedy would feel the same as well.”
Shirley noted that MSU is also conducting research on its campus. It is the only campus in the state with a bachelor’s program in addiction studies, where a lot of research is done, he said. The university also does research surrounding the North Dakota Center for Persons with Disabilities, which is located in Minot. Additionally, the university is doing research in chemistry and biology and other science areas as well.
Following their stop in Minot, Kennedy and Bresciani made their pitch in Bismarck on Wednesday. The two are headed to Watford City, Williston and Dickinson to round out the rest of the trip this week. The presidents have also spoken to groups in Grand Forks and Fargo.
Forum News Service reporter John Hageman contributed to this story.