Mike Jacobs: Change accelerates in North Dakota's higher-ed system

Mike Jacobs is a Grand Forks Herald columnist.

We’re playing catch-up this week, so the usual rules of column writing are suspended, especially the rule about discussing just one topic. No worries, though! We’ll stick to our favorites, higher education and state politics. As it happens, news is being made in both areas.

Let’s start with higher education, if only because the deadline is most pressing there. Applications for a spot on North Dakota’s Board of Higher Education are due today (March 3). A second opening will be filled later in this year.

The immediate opening arises because Dan Traynor, a UND loyalist and a board activist, has resigned to become a federal judge. The term runs until mid-year 2022. The second opening occurs at the end of June, when Don Morton’s term expires. Morton has been chairman of the board and is closely identified with NDSU. This is a four-year term, running through June 2024.

Applications will be reviewed by a nominating committee of five members. This procedure dates to the creation of the Board of Higher Education in 1939, with one significant change. Initially, the nominating committee had three members, the president of the state teachers’ association, the superintendent of public instruction and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Two political figures were added later, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president pro temp of the state Senate.

Three of these members will be participating for the first time, Speaker Lawrence Klemin, Sen. Oley Larson and Chief Justice John Jensen.


Larson, recently suggested that Ihlan Omar, member of Congress from Minnesota (and an NDSU graduate), had been a terrorist in Somalia. As proof he presented a photograph taken years before she was born.

The chief justice is new in his job. He replaces Gerald VandeWalle, who had a couple of decades experience as legal adviser to the board and more than four decades on the court.

Kirsten Baesler, the superintendent was recently arrested for driving under the influence. The fifth member is Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, which represents public educators and employees. This group will forward nominations to Gov. Doug Burgum opening.

There’s a third opening, for a student who will serve a one-year term. Kaleb Dschaak, a UND student, is the current member. The North Dakota Student Association nominates candidates for that slot.

All three vacancies will be filled by gubernatorial appointment and approved by the state Senate when it meets next year. Each is important, because the board – as currently constituted – has eight members, so three members form, or could form, an important bloc.

This is not the end of news about higher education in the state. At Bismarck State College, a committee is set to interview five candidates for president. This is an increasingly important position in the state’s higher education system, not least because the campus is less than a mile from the state capitol. What’s more, under President Larry Skogen, BSC has established itself as a “polytechnic,” offering college-level instruction as well as job training.

“Polytechnic” is the byword at Dickinson State University, as well. North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott is set to suggest that the board name Steve Easton president there. He’s been interim president since mid-November, when Tom Mitzel announced he’d leave for Kentucky Wesleyan. Easton had a brief career in North Dakota politics; he was the Republican candidate for state treasurer in 1988. He lost the election, which occurred at the highwater mark of the North Dakota Democratic Party.

Change is pending at UND, the system’s flagship campus and still its largest. The Board of Higher Education last year chose a president, Andrew Armacost, who had been dean of faculty at the Air Force Academy, a position roughly equivalent to the provost’s job on a North Dakota campus. He takes over at UND on June 1. In the meantime, he has been working part time for UND, attending various events.


UND’s provost, Tom DiLorenzo, announced last week that he’ll be leaving campus. A flurry of speculation ensured, of course. Why would he leave? And who would replace him? The first question is easy enough to answer. Di Lorenzo has been provost since 2013, a seven-year period that saw four presidencies on campus. These leadership shake-ups put DiLorenzo in the position of a scapegoat; he stayed while presidents moved on.

It’s an important position, of course, more consequential perhaps than membership on the Board of Higher Education.

Speaking of which: Membership on the Board of Higher Education itself faces a challenge on the November ballot. Voters will decide whether to enlarge the existing Board of Higher Education from eight to 15 members.

OK. That’s just one topic, eh?

But we’ve run up against the inflexible rule of column writing, the length limit.

Although Minnesotans vote in their primary today, and North Dakota holds its presidential preference caucuses next week, politics will have to wait, because I’ve reached my allotment of 800 words.

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

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