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Chancellor's letter asks Kupchella to rein in med school

In a Feb. 5 letter, Eddie Dunn, chancellor of the university system, told UND President Charles Kupchella that UND Medical School officials were advancing their own priorities at the Legislature without showing adequate support for the budget app...

In a Feb. 5 letter, Eddie Dunn, chancellor of the university system, told UND President Charles Kupchella that UND Medical School officials were advancing their own priorities at the Legislature without showing adequate support for the budget approved by the State Board of Higher Education.

Copies of that letter were later distributed to members of the education and environment subdivision of the House Appropriations Committee, which was in charge of reviewing the university system's budget before crossover. Legislators said they do not know who originally distributed copies of the letter.

According to Dunn's letter, the state's university presidents agreed at a Dec. 6 Chancellor's Cabinet meeting that representatives from their campuses would only advocate funding projects outside the university system budget after:

"First make(ing) it clear to legislators that: The budget submitted by the board. . . is the number one priority for the (North Dakota University System) institutions and all of the presidents are supportive of it."

UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences Dean H. David Wilson and other medical school officials failed to make those clarifying statements in two meetings with the House subcommittee examining the system's budget, Jan. 10 and Feb. 2, the letter states.

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"As you might imagine," Dunn wrote, "the absence of the clarifying statement is not going by unnoticed within the Legislature or within the University System."

The letter asks Kupchella or Wilson to contact members of the subcommittee and affirm the medical school's support for the system's budget.

In an interview Wednesday, Dunn said the clarifying statement is important because "without it you have a free-for-all. Any institution or any representative could come forth with a funding request without regard to the funding priorities established by the system and endorsed by the state board."

Kupchella said Wednesday that Wilson's presentation was not out of bounds because it should have been seen as connected with his own presentation.

"Dean Wilson's (presentation) was in the context of mine and (my presentation) was in the context of what the board did to begin the whole thing," he said. "It would be over-interpreting our obligation to repeat what the board has already presented to say we were lax.

"Committees are smart enough to know the board made the overall pitch first and we each came after that. . . I guess he felt the dean should have but didn't take any of the time he had available or take enough time to repeat the message he thought needed repeating."

Kupchella said he told the Legislature's interim Higher Education Committee in July he did not agree with the way the system's equity pool was distributed between campuses in the university system budget, but said he'd accepted the decision of the state board.

"Of course, we're governed by the state board and we have to accept the way in which they have apportioned the details within the budget they presented," he said.

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Kupchella rejected comparisons to the 2005 session battle over funding priorities between North Dakota State University President Joseph Chapman and former Chancellor Robert Potts. That dispute involved private communications between the two men and members of the state board and resulted in Potts' resignation in June.

"What we did was right there before God and everybody," he said. "We went to the Legislature to address points the legislative counsel asked us to address right out in the open and we did it with every positive intention."

Kupchella said he did not know how the letter reached legislators and said he did not know they'd received it until Wednesday.

After receiving Dunn's letter, Kupchella said he and Wilson made similar clarifying statements at a legislative forum in Grand Forks, but did not contact members of the subcommittee. He said the budget was close to being passed out of the subcommittee when he received the letter and an attempt to contact subcommittee members "would have been futile at that point."

The medical school received more than $4 million in the university system budget passed by the House last week for a new family practice residency center in Bismarck and the school's bacteriology and immunology programs. That's about 14 percent of the roughly $20 million in projects funding the subcommittee added to the budget. The most expensive item in the overall budget is $8 million for a new library at Dickinson State University.

Wilson would not speak about Dunn's letter to Kupchella because it was not addressed to him, but said he did not think he'd spoken improperly to legislators.

"I'm just stating what I need to state as the leader of the school," Wilson said Tuesday. "I intend to keep working until April because these are critical things for the school. . . Like it or not, there's lobbying by all institutions of higher learning in Bismarck."

Rep. Pam Gulleson, D-Rutland, serves on the House subcommittee reviewing the university system budget and received a copy of Dunn's letter. She called the letter "unnecessary" and said it was inappropriate for Dunn to exert too much sway on campus officials' meetings with legislators.

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"As legislators, we have an interest in all sorts of projects, whether they've been brought forward by the board of higher ed or not," she said. "I think it's part of being a good agency director to make sure everybody's aware of what you're doing and that's what Wilson did in this case."

Another subcommittee member, Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, said higher education budget discussions at the state Capitol rarely hew to university system priorities for long.

"They all say our priority is the board budget," he said. "But there are lobbyists for higher ed all over the capitol. There are legislators employed by higher education. I think people should be able to express their opinions. And they do."

Dunn said he encourages deans and other campus officials to communicate with legislators, provided they don't undercut the system budget endorsed by the state board.

"Truly, that's the reason a unified higher education system was created," he said. "It was created so there'd be a clear system that would examine issues and set priorities regarding what's in the best interest of higher education, so we're able to speak with a unified voice."

Dunn said he hopes he's reached an understanding with UND that will make the system's priorities clear through the rest of the session. Kupchella said he plans to make it clear when the Senate takes up the system budget, that the budget has UND's support, but Kupchella said does not think UND officials failed to make that clear to House legislators.

"I don't know how we could make it clearer," he said.

Marks reports on higher education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105, (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or jmarks@gfherald.com .

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