UND leaders are mostly pleased with the higher education funding bill signed Monday, April 26, by Gov. Doug Burgum.
“All in all, I think the funding that came forward through that bill is going to be good for institutions,” UND President Andrew Armacost said. “We use that money very carefully and with the taxpayers' interests at heart.”
Legislators passed the higher education funding allotment last week without having to go through a conference committee. The bill includes more than $686.6 million in state funding for the system and its 11 institutions; UND’s allotment was around $152 million.
The budget, typically one of the last approved by lawmakers, was largely the same as set forth in January by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The state funding approved by the Legislature is a stark difference from the budget proposed by Burgum in December, which called for a 7.5% cut to the North Dakota higher-ed system amid falling enrollments across the North Dakota University System. It would have meant the loss of around 200 jobs systemwide, higher-ed leaders had estimated at the time – around 70 of those jobs would have been at UND.
“Having another biennium of relative economic stability for all of the 11 schools is just critical,” Jed Shivers, vice president for finance and operations at UND, said last week. “I think it makes a huge difference to faculty retention and recruitment. Faculty are key to our success.”
Despite a call for cuts, legislators started with the NDUS needs-based budget that previously had been approved by the State Board of Higher Education. It’s a decision legislators didn’t take lightly, Shivers noted.
“People sort of take a needs-based budget for granted. It was not taken for granted by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.
Shivers said thanks to this funding, North Dakota – in comparison to other states that may be having a rougher financial time due to the pandemic or because other states don’t fund higher education like North Dakota does – may have a slight competitive advantage going forward.
“That puts us in a different place,” he said. “(NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott) talks all the time about how our 11 (institutions) are like feeding grounds for other larger institutions. Maybe this could be a bit of a reversal of that trend, as we're able to move forward with a stable budget.”
Although UND leaders were mostly pleased with the funding, they had hoped for dollars to tackle deferred maintenance on campus. UND had requested money to renovate Twamley and Merrifield halls, but it was not included in the final bill.
“We're still waiting to see what happens in the current session, but it's likely that the bulk of that effort might have to wait until the next biennium,” Armacost said, adding it would have been nice to get some dollars just to begin the design process.
Additionally, the bill didn’t include funding for “high performance computing systems” used by researchers at UND and North Dakota State, Armacost said. He said that is a “critical resource” the campuses will have to keep up.
Peter Johnson, director of government relations and public affairs for UND's alumni foundation, said the fact the legislation did not have to go through a conference committee this session “speaks to the collective understanding of the importance of higher education.”
“There wasn't any sort of arm wrestling at the end,” he said, adding he thinks legislators know that higher education has gone through various cuts in past bienniums. “We're all a little surprised it's done this early.”
Johnson often accompanied Armacost, who is wrapping up his first legislative session as UND president, to Bismarck. Armacost said advice from people like Johnson and legislators themselves has been crucial during his first session in a new state.
“It's a great learning experience for a first-time president coming into a new state to understand how the process works,” Armacost said. “Fortunately, I've gotten great advice from our staff here at UND. They've been through the process before, so their advice has been instrumental and positioning (UND) for success.”