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Mike Jacobs: Remarkable moment for higher ed

UND President Mark Kennedy, right, and North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani meet with The Forum Editorial Board to make the case for more legislative funding for research Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

The news about higher education in North Dakota adds up to a stark realization. The state has reached a remarkable moment.

Let's take stock:

Presidents of the two largest colleges, North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota, have launched a campaign to establish a shared research fund. UND's Mark Kennedy and NDSU's Dean Bresciani took the idea to communities across the state last week.

Each would get $25 million a year, a total of $100 million in the next two-year budget cycle.

The chances of this actually happening increased significantly with the suggestion that the Bank of North Dakota monitor the fund, bringing in trusted outside supervision and giving the bank still another role in building the state's economy.

At the same time, the presidents have pressed the idea that the research universities should have more autonomy, especially in setting tuition rates, a role the Legislature has not just kept for itself but sometimes used to discipline institutions.

Smaller campuses have promoted new ideas for their own futures. Last month the Board of Higher Education approved a "polytechnic" program for Bismarck State College, allowing what had been a two-year school to offer four-year degrees in certain disciplines. Earlier, Dickinson State University had diversified its source offerings, adding two-year technical programs to its four-year curriculum.

This suggests a growing realization that the campuses have different roles and should have greater latitude to pursue them.

A task force appointed by Gov. Doug Burgum has tackled this notion, suggesting that the current Board of Higher Education should be replaced with separate boards — perhaps as many as four of them — to govern the colleges and universities. The board itself considered a similar idea at its September meeting, postponing a decision on whether to create a committee to deal with the larger schools.

These are big ideas that challenge the notion that the state's 11 campuses should be a unified "system." The idea of multiple boards has provoked criticism in newspaper editorials.

A legislative committee, chaired by Rep. Mark Sanford of Grand Forks, is considering these issues, and will present its own recommendations to the next legislative session.

Two of the state's universities, Mayville State and Valley City State, have new presidents, both men, despite a board goal to increase the number of women presidents — a number that now stands at zero.

The Board of Higher Education will have at least two new members; the student member serves only a one-year term, and the board vice president has resigned just ahead of the expiration of his term. Another member is eligible for reappointment. Kirsten Baesler, the state superintendent of public instruction, chairs the committee that screens applications and recommends candidates to the governor, who makes the appointments. Applicants then must be confirmed by the state Senate.

At its September meeting, the board renewed John Richman's contract as president of the State School of Science at Wahpeton, completing the roster of presidents by putting aside criticism of some incumbents.

A "charm offensive" has diffused criticism of Kennedy that arose after he applied for a presidency elsewhere after less than two years at UND. Legislative unhappiness with NDSU's Bresciani also seems to have diminished.

The demolition of buildings at UND has ended, Kennedy told community leaders at a breakfast. Some existing structures will be renovated and funding will be sought for new buildings. To underscore each point: a $3 million gift from Hal and Kathy Gershman will finance renovation of Oxford House, which once housed university presidents, and students will be asked to approve an increase in fees to build a new student center.

This doesn't mean that all controversy is stilled nor every critic made happy. Charges about employment discrimination and harassment at the board office remain unresolved. Clamor for renewal of discontinued programs continues. So does criticism of decision makers, UND's provost among them.

Nor will the university system escape close scrutiny in the upcoming legislative session. In fact, the opposite is probably true. Funding the research program may require tapping the state's reserve funds. That would require super majority votes in each chamber of the Legislature, increasing the chance that a few individual members could derail the idea, and that increases the possibility of bargaining for specific buildings or programs — a resurrection of the "Christmas tree" approach that marked education funding in the days before the unified system.

Changing the structure of the Board of Higher Education will require amending the state constitution, and that requires a vote of the people, whether the amendment comes from the Legislature or from a petition drive by voters themselves.

Fraught as it may be, however, the moment is extraordinary, presenting the chance to redefine the state's approach to higher education and to reposition the state's colleges and universities.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.

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