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Our view: Board plan is OK, but could still use work

Herald editorial board

Monday, the North Dakota House voted against a resolution to create a larger State Board of Higher Education. The 46-42 vote seemingly ended the idea to expand the board from its current membership of eight to 15.

Tuesday, the House reconsidered and reversed course, voting 50-41 to approve Senate Concurrent Resolution 4016. Since the current State Board of Higher Education format is written into the North Dakota constitution, the state's voters may now get the final say. If the Senate concurs with the House vote—and that's debatable as of this writing—it would be put to a statewide vote.

Because we believe the current board is too small to adequately oversee the giant state university system, we're are glad to see the House revisit and then pass 4016, especially after lawmakers picked apart Gov. Doug Burgum's wish to see even bigger changes to the state board. In 2017, Burgum created a statewide task force to consider ways to innovate higher education governance. The panel came back with a proposal to expand from one board to three — one to oversee UND, one to oversee North Dakota State University and one to oversee the remaining state higher-education institutions.

We took the Goldilocks approach: One board is too few, three is too many. Two is just right, since two boards still would have separated the large research universities — UND and NDSU — from the other schools, which are smaller and have greatly differing missions. A two-board system also would have followed Burgum's wish of reinventing higher education in the state.

Lawmakers, however, didn't like the idea.

Now, we lend our lukewarm support to SCR 4016, since the system that exists today seems too much for eight members to oversee. However, we still have issues with current wording of the resolution.

For instance, current rules limit the number of graduates from a single institution that can serve on the board. UND is the state's largest university but only two UND graduates may be on the board at one time. With eight board members, we suppose that has been OK—that's still 25 percent of the board membership. In the future, however, UND grads still will be limited to two; the same goes for NDSU.

That means the two largest universities, which receive the bulk of North Dakota's higher-education funding, would have just four alumni combined representing them.

Also, current rules allow for one student representative, and that number won't change, according to SCR 4016. One student in eight is right, but one in 15 is too few and greatly diminishes the influence of the board's student representation.

Remember: Even if the Senate concurs and 4016 is approved, it doesn't mean much yet. It would still have to pass on a statewide ballot.

Our hope, however, is that 4016 is tweaked before it reaches the voters.