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Mike Jacobs: Big change to college board less likely

A proposal to rewrite the state constitution and replace the Board of Higher Education didn’t get past its first committee hearing. Actually, the original proposal didn’t make it that far. Gov. Doug Burgum mentioned it during his State of the State address in early January, but within a fortnight, he backed away from a three-board system that a task force of his appointees recommended and instead sought support for a two-board model, one board for the research universities and one for the other state-supported colleges and universities. This version was presented but failed to pass the committee,

The idea could come back, but the more likely outcome of the session appears to be some tweaking of the existing system, which has a single board that oversees 11 state colleges and universities. This board was created 80 years ago specifically to end gubernatorial interference on campuses (and not to punish the AC, now NDSU, as some commentators have suggested).

There's some sentiment to undo changes made along the way. These shortened the terms of board members and allowed their reappointment, innovations that are widely seen as making membership less appealing and thus weakening the board.

Any change in the structure or composition of the board would need voter approval. So would proposals to remove the names of institutions from the constitution or to privatize any of the state colleges. Even rightward-leaning legislators from college towns seem reluctant to confront the risk of losing an institution that taking all of them out of the constitution might present.

All of this should allow higher education officials to press their funding requests beyond the "needs-based" budgets that were presented earlier. A research endowment funding with earnings from the Legacy Fund (built on oil taxes) is one possibility.

While Burgum appears to have given up on higher education governance reform, he's doubled down on the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, which seems to have replaced higher education governance as the acid test of Burgum's governorship.

The governor's budget isn't generous to higher education. He didn't include money for research that presidents of NDSU and UND asked for, nor did he support the "needs-based budget" that the Board of Higher Education endorsed. This left academic deans looking for more cuts in programs, students and faculty facing larger classes and administrators offering more buyouts.

Legislators also have been hostile to higher education; four years ago, Republicans advanced a proposal to replace the Board of Higher Education with a three-member commission responsible to the governor. Voters rejected the idea by a large margin.

Now, in an unexpected twist, hostility toward higher education seems to have been replaced by hostility toward Gov. Burgum, who's never been a legislator.

Coincidentally, the case for higher education may have been improved by poll numbers published by Forum Company's Mike McFeely over the weekend. The headline on his column (published on grandforksherald.com) said the poll, by DFM Research, "shows unabashed love for NDSU, UND despite non-stop bashing of both." The favorable response for NDSU was 84 percent; for UND it was 80 percent. There's a margin of error, but my response wouldn't have changed the results; I said I liked them both.

The legislative deadline for bill introductions has passed, and another important deadline is approaching. Bills passed in one house must "cross over" to the other by adjournment on Feb. 22, Friday of next week, just 10 calendar days from now.

Most of the nuisance bills should disappear by that time, narrowing the options and considerably clarifying the situation.

In the meantime: Monday is President's Day, a legal holiday. Lawmakers expect to work that day, as they did in 2017.

Here's another thought about clarity: DFM Research didn't ask about athletics specifically, but McFeely includes this quote, "There's a belief that athletics are the 'front porch' of a university. I have to believe that's in play here. ... You have to think that the success of the NDSU football team and the UND hockey team plays into people's perceptions."

Something's clearly missing from the front porch of North Dakota campuses: equal opportunity for women athletes. Both universities have programs for women, of course, but the marquee programs are for men. Women don't play collegiate football, and UND killed its women's hockey program two years ago as part of a cost-saving move.

The players who left UND and the recruits who committed to UND but went elsewhere have compiled an outstanding record, so the decision to kill the program denied the university a chance at a Division I championship, future Olympic gold medalists, and bragging rights as the nation's premier hockey school.

You can't be the nation's premier hockey school without women's hockey.

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