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North Dakota could do with fewer colleges, administrators, Bismarck legislator says

State Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, told the State Board of Higher Education Tuesday that the state could probably do with fewer campuses. Becker questioned the need for the current roster of 11 North Dakota University System schools in an openin...

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State Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, told the State Board of Higher Education Tuesday that the state could probably do with fewer campuses.

Becker questioned the need for the current roster of 11 North Dakota University System schools in an opening address at the board’s monthly meeting. He attributed the number of colleges  solely to a drive for “parochialist economic development” at a time when North Dakota “had little white schoolhouses every couple miles.”

“That time is over,” Becker told the board. “The discussion needs to be had about repurposing some of the campuses. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but if we’re honest, that’s where we need to go eventually.”

Becker has introduced bills pertaining to higher education during the most recent legislative session. He put his comments about NDUS schools within a broader address about the nature of changes facing higher education as a whole. He used his time to also speak to a need for greater emphasis on two-year schools and tech certifications and a rethinking of tuition reciprocity agreements with other states.

Much of his address echoed sentiments discussed by Gov. Doug Burgum, who has also questioned the need for the full NDUS collection of schools and has advocated for greater use of online teaching in higher ed.

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Before Becker turned his own comments to the number of schools, he also encouraged a deeper embrace of digital learning tools. Placing more courses on an internet-accessible platform, he said, could overturn a status quo he defined as physical attendance in NDUS classrooms.

“Things are going to go online,” he said, comparing higher education to a video rental store considering the implications of online media streaming.

In line with his view of the necessity of 11 full campuses, Becker also questioned the need for what he described as “redundant administration” across the NDUS. As a “blasphemous suggestion,” Becker asked why a full slate of administrators was necessary at each campus.

He followed that line by pointing out that the population of students enrolled in the system is low compared to other states, where a single administration might cater to a number of students equivalent to all of those in the NDUS and suggested the state’s research universities might play a bigger role in providing administration to other campuses.

“You could look at UND at Minot, NDSU at Bismarck,” Becker said. “There are ways, they take some change, but there are ways to actually address this, grab it by the horns and get a handle on some of the costs of the administrative bloat.”

As is standard, Becker’s opening statement wasn’t followed by much board discussion, though board Chair Kathleen Neset thanked him for his ideas.

Later in the meeting, the board approved a series of contract renewals for NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott and most of the campus presidents. Due to the budget cuts, those renewals came with no pay increase.

The new contracts will be effective through June 30, 2019.

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Toward the end of the day, the board unanimously approved a request from UND to raze a set of 39 campus apartment buildings to cut down on deferred maintenance costs.

Board member Nick Hacker said he visited the buildings earlier this year to examine the buildings first-hand.

“They’re effectively moving students from units that have leaking roofs to units that do not,” Hacker said. “I think it’s a good plan for them.”

University leaders have said the buildings will be vacated by the end of the next academic year and will be torn down sometime after that.

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