BISMARCK - A task force convened by North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum recommended splitting the state's higher education governance into three boards Tuesday, Nov. 13, a constitutional change that would require voter approval.
After 10 months of deliberation and research, the panel favored a model that would install a board to oversee each of the state's research universities - North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota - along with another board that would be responsible for the nine other community and regional institutions.
The current State Board of Higher Education consists of eight voting members appointed by the governor, along with faculty and staff non-voting advisers, to oversee the North Dakota University System's 11 public colleges and universities. It appoints a chancellor to serve as its chief executive.
Under the task force's recommendation, each board would have three non-voting members representing faculty, staff and a designee of the Department of Public Instruction. Each research university would have a 12-member board and the other board would have 14 members. Each board would have one full-time student as a voting member, according to Burgum's office.
A higher education administrator would chair an advisory committee consisting of the three board chairs and another member from the community and regional institution board, Burgum's office said.
Burgum said having multiple boards will allow leadership to be more "nimble" at a time that higher education is changing rapidly.
"When you can put governing board members closer to the leadership of any institution, then you're going to have more accountability, you're going to have better-informed board members," he said.
The task force's proposal would also allow residents of other states to serve on the boards, something that's not currently allowed under the constitution.
Burgum said the task force's work will be written into a forthcoming report. He noted that their recommendation has a long way to becoming reality, given that legislators will have a chance to weigh in before voters decide whether to support a potential constitutional amendment.
The three-board proposal appeared to be the product of a long-fought compromise among the 15-member task force. Some members favored a four-board model while others suggested two boards would be easier to pass.
Burgum pointed out that all task force members were in favor of some kind of change, but he acknowledged there was less consensus on what exactly should be proposed.
"You can imagine how 15 people are all different. Can you imagine taking it to 141 now?" said the Democratic Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, referring to the Legislature. She was then reminded that voters would have to approve the change through the ballot box.
"And then to 700,000 (people)," she said. "That's what our job is."
Burgum signed an executive order creating the task force a year ago. He said it was time to examine the state's higher education governance structure after having a similar model in place for 80 years.
Burgum, a Republican elected on a promise of “reinventing government,” has traced the current system to a constitutional amendment aimed at preventing political meddling in higher education. Voters approved the proposal after former Gov. William “Wild Bill” Langer tried to fire seven North Dakota Agricultural College employees.
But voters have been hesitant to approve major changes to the higher education board recently. Four years ago, they soundly declined to replace it with a three-member, full-time commission. Burgum shrugged off that result, stating last year that the “world’s a different place” than it was in 2014.
The task force included North Dakota Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle, state lawmakers from both parties, higher education officials, business leaders and others. Tuesday’s meeting was the panel’s 10th and final in-person gathering.