There’s nothing good about Measure 1 and it ought to be defeated at next week’s election. As bad as it is, though, Gov. Doug Burgum’s cynical, opportunistic and self-serving campaign against it is even worse.
Let’s review: Measure 1 would amend North Dakota’s constitution to increase the size of the state Board of Higher Education from seven citizen members to 14. The number of student members would remain the same. One, that is. This column addressed the inherent weaknesses of such a large board soon after it was proposed, and nothing has happened to lessen that argument.
Yet the clumsiness of such a board is not the issue that the Burgum has raised against it. Instead the campaign launched by the Dakota Leadership PAC, which Burgum funds, has thrown up a big bunch of assertions that have little if anything at all to do with the measure itself. These expose more about the governor and his agenda than they do about the weaknesses of Measure 1.
Some more review: Measure 1 arose in the Legislature amid the chaos that followed the collapse of Burgum’s own proposal for governing the state’s 11 public colleges and universities. His plan would have created three separate boards.
Yet the blizzard of broadsides arriving in mailboxes across the state condemns the measure for “empowering more faraway bureaucrats … expanding the size of government and increasing wasteful government spending.” That’s quoting just one of a half dozen expensively printed arguments that have arrived in our mailbox so far. None of these assertions is supported by any data – pretty revealing coming from a politician who claims to be data driven.
Equally disingenuously, Burgum’s broadsides urge a "no" vote to “protect our colleges and universities.” Yet few governors have been so hostile to higher education as Doug Burgum. In 1895, Roger Allin, North Dakota’s fourth governor, vetoed the appropriation for the University of North Dakota in the expectation that it would close. Local people raised money to keep it open. In 1939, Gov. Bill Langer fired some faculty at the ag college, now North Dakota State University. In response, students there helped initiate a constitutional amendment that established the current governing system (with a few changes along the way).
Burgum’s view of higher education is neither so cramped nor so intrusive. It is disturbing none the less, and that’s reflected in one of his broadsides. “Measure 1 makes it harder for colleges and universities to focus on ensuring that we have workers with the skills needed for high wages in a 21st century economy.”
No data attached, of course.
The assertion speaks clearly about Burgum’s own view of higher education, which is that higher education should train a steady supply of labor – not physical labor, but brainwork harnessed to the needs of business enterprises like his own. Burgum is a big proponent of so-called “career academies,” and that’s probably the button he’s trying to push with a line about “less control to the local community” that appears in his broadsides.
But producing workers is not the only role of higher education. Higher education is about discovery; its greatest calling is to prepare students to make choices and to build careers, to exercise the freedom that a functioning capitalist economy ought to provide. This might include technical training, but it also must include training in thinking, reasoning, analysis, contextualization and how to maneuver through cynicism and self-interest to shape one’s own destiny.
Of course, that’s not Burgum’s goal. Instead, his relentless and expensive campaign against Measure 1 may be to be preparing the ground for another effort to bend the higher education system to his own will. This could come in the next legislative session or it could come in an initiated measure to amend the constitution.
To sum up:
North Dakota’s governance of higher education is not perfect, but none is, as studies conducted by legislators and private think tanks and the Board of Higher Education itself have concluded over the years. The problem is not the structure itself but rather the people within the structure. North Dakota has confronted plenty of personnel problems in higher education, but these are not structural problems, they are people problems, and they have become notably fewer. The higher education system has become stronger, more entrepreneurial, more relevant and more liberating.
We don’t need a bigger board and so we don’t need Measure 1. In fact, we don’t need to mess with higher education governance as it’s laid out in the state constitution. It’s not perfect, to be sure, but it works.
To review again: Vote No on Measure 1 but ignore Burgum’s self-serving bluster, because bombast won’t build a better higher education system in North Dakota.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.