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OUR OPINION : Keep axes away from N.D. higher ed Roundtable

"North Dakota," writes the president of a national executive leadership group, "is recognized as one of only two or three states that are 'getting it right' - that have adopted an integrated set of policies directed at achieving a clearly delinea...

"North Dakota," writes the president of a national executive leadership group, "is recognized as one of only two or three states that are 'getting it right' - that have adopted an integrated set of policies directed at achieving a clearly delineated set of state goals. . . .

"Congratulations on a job well done."

High praise. So, North Dakota lawmakers ought to ponder it before they gut the program that the president admires.

The president is Dennis Jones; the leadership group that he heads is the National Center for Higher Education Management in Boulder, Colo. And the North Dakota innovation that Jones considers a model is the Roundtable on Higher Education, the most successful public-policy effort that the state has initiated in years.

"An amendment to the North Dakota University System budget, passed Feb. 15 by the state House of Representatives, requires the university system to provide all the same budgetary information to legislators as other state agencies," Herald staff writer Joseph Marks reported ("Amendment shifts power to state," Page 1A).

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"Since the 2001 legislative session, the university system has essentially submitted its budget in two line items, one for operations and another for capital improvements. That system was recommended by the Roundtable on Higher Education."

However, some lawmakers want higher ed to be "more accountable" to the Legislature, especially because the university system gets about 20 percent of North Dakota's general fund.

But the Roundtable was designed specifically to avoid that kind of "accountability," and for very good reason.

Here's the key quote from a March 2001 Herald story that describes the first Roundtable-influenced budget in Bismarck:

"The result is a funding bill very different from past versions. As approved by the Senate, the bill has just two line items per university - operations and capital assets. Previously, there would have been long lists of categories both for campuses and for the Board of Higher Education."

"Previously." You remember higher education's fate in Bismarck "previously" - that is, before the Roundtable: It was a free-for-all. The Legislature got the same budget detail that the new House amendment again would provide. So, lawmakers scrutinized each line item with an eye to their districts, and university deans and presidents lobbied each lawmaker with an eye to their institutions.

It was an ugly process that resulted in a "Christmas tree bill," which very poorly served the state. So, it was changed, and the public-private partnership known as the Roundtable was the result.

Instead of every college fighting for itself, the Roundtable focuses the energies of all 11 institutions toward a common goal. That goal is the economic development of the state.

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As groups ranging from the Council of State Governments to the National Conference of State Legislatures' Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education have testified, it works.

Why would North Dakota want to jettison success and go back to the failed system that prompted the change in the first place?

The keys to the Roundtable's success are its watchwords, "Flexibility with accountability." The lump-sum budget gives the university system flexibility. The State Board of Higher Education can distribute that money with an eye to promoting population and economic growth.

Then comes accountability, as the system tracks the progress toward those goals and formally reports results.

Do you see? Flexibility comes at the front end in the form of the university system's budget. Accountability comes at the back end when the system makes reports to the state.

The House amendment would rob the budget of flexibility. That would take a power saw to the Roundtable, and it would leave a square-sided and very ungainly table indeed.

What sober observer would claim that the North Dakota university system is weaker today than it was in 2001? The answer is none. The campuses have dramatically improved, the entire state is profiting from it, and the Roundtable brought the changes about.

Let's keep encouraging that process by striking the House amendment.

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- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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