Toward the end of a recent hour-long conversation between North Dakota University System leaders and the Grand Forks Herald editorial board, the focus turned to the future of small campuses.

It’s important to discuss, since the coronavirus pandemic has put a crimp in state finances and there is little doubt that efficiencies will be sought in the coming years.

Specifically, the Herald asked: “Do you have great confidence that all of our universities and public institutions will weather this storm and they will all return? And in several years will they all continue to exist as they exist now?”

NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott responded: “I certainly do.”

Nick Hacker, chairman of the Board of Higher Education, expanded: “Absolutely. Our institutions are on fairly good financial footing to weather the storm.”

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Hacker said the pandemic has actually advanced the state’s higher-education environment by “at least a decade,” since it forced the system to better accommodate hybrid learning, including online education, in-person classes or a mix thereof.

Hacker said it’s a “once-in-a-century opportunity.”

We then asked: “Are there worries about the Mayville campus surviving this?”

Responded Hacker: “Let’s give you the plain, simple facts – 10 years of record enrollment (at Mayville State), year over year. It may not be a big number, but when we talk about the financial position, they’re in a good position.”

That’s good to hear, since whispers always seem to exist about the viability of maintaining all 11 of the state’s public institutions – and especially those that are within the large geographic circles of UND and NDSU. We assume those whispers will be amplified as post-pandemic budgets are debated.

But Hagerott said places like Mayville could be on the verge of a “renaissance” as some national analysts predict a trend of moving from the cities in the wake of the pandemic.

That would be a welcome change for North Dakota, a state that has been declared one of the great losers to “brain drain” – the phenomenon of losing educated residents to other states.

A study in 2019 showed North Dakota to be the top state in the nation for “net brain drain,” a result of high outmigration of adults who are better educated than the people who move here.

But Hagerott said things could change as the nation reacts to the pandemic and what he calls a trend toward de-urbanization.

“There have been several theorists … that say we may have just had the most historic event in the socio-technical geography of our nation,” he said. “We have had a steady period of urbanization since about 1810 and it may have just reversed. It could be that places like Mayville and (Dakota College at Bottineau), that are human scale and small, their timing has arrived. … It is potentially going to be the renaissance of rural America in ways we haven’t anticipated.” He thinks it could be “an exciting time.”

For now, it’s just a hypothesis. But for the sake of the state’s small campuses during the pandemic, it’s good to have a hint of hope wafting in the breeze rather than worrying about winds of change.