Jacobs: Higher ed needs better management

North Dakota's Board of Higher Education got a lecture last week. The Grand Forks Herald summed up it up in a headline spread across the top of Page 6. The headline said, "Becker: ND could do with fewer colleges, admins". "Becker" refers to state...

Forum Communications Company Publisher, Mark Jacobs. photo by Jenna Watson/Grand Forks Herald

North Dakota's Board of Higher Education got a lecture last week. The Grand Forks Herald summed up it up in a headline spread across the top of Page 6.

The headline said, "Becker: ND could do with fewer colleges, admins".

"Becker" refers to state Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck, the founder, chief ideologist, and past chair of the Bastiat Caucus in the state Legislature and its most prolific bill sponsor. The caucus is named for Frederick Bastiat, a 19th century French economic thinker who championed markets unfettered by government interference. He's the intellectual godfather of today's thinking libertarians.

Becker is certainly one of these. In the last legislative session he was the prime sponsor of 17 bills dealing with such issues as gun rights - he's for them; civil asset forfeiture - he's against that; school vouchers - for them; and tax incentives for business - mostly against them.

Three of his bills dealt with higher education. One would have limited the number of nonresident students admitted to North Dakota colleges. Another would have revised the formula for nonresident tuition, raising it significantly.


The third would have created a "free speech" code for college campus. It was aimed at so-called "safe zones" where students would be protected from charged speech. The tuition bills died in the House; the free speech bill passed the House but was killed in the Senate.

Given this history, it's no surprise that Becker might seek a podium to expand on his ideas about downsizing North Dakota's higher education. There is a surprise, though. It wasn't his idea. The board invited him. It's a rare example of the board "making nice" with lawmakers.

Becker didn't return the favor. He made three essential points, as reported by Andrew Haffner, the Herald's higher education reporter. There are too many campuses and too many administrators and education is moving online. His solutions: Repurpose campuses, merge administrations and embrace online education.

The colleges were developed "for parochialist economic development," Becker opined, according to Haffner's report. "The discussion has to be about repurposing some of the campuses. It's a hard pill to swallow but if we're honest that's where we need to go eventually."

Becker attacked "redundant administration" across the system, Haffner reported. As for online education, Becker compared higher education to a video rental store, again according to Haffner's story.

All of this is a little unsettling coming - as it does - from someone who has two degrees from UND.

It's also a bit odd coming from a constitutional conservative. North Dakota's constitution lists eight campuses. Voters have repeatedly rejected taking any out of the constitution. In fact, voters added campuses "other state institutions of higher education as may be established."

These are at Williston, Bismarck and Devils Lake.


So that's been tried.

North Dakota also has tried merging administrations. Mayville and Valley City state universities had a joint president for several years. Nobody was very happy and the experiment wasn't repeated.

UND and the agricultural college - now NDSU - also shared a president for about a year in the late 1930s. It's probably no accident that he's more favorably recalled in Grand Forks than in Fargo. A UND dormitory is named for him.

Nor are North Dakota colleges especially pokey about embracing online education. UND - for example - has developed a range of distance programs ranging from public speaking to space studies. Somewhat to its surprise, the university found that many of its online students were living on campus.

Becker reiterated his thoughts about out-of- state students and tuition reciprocity with neighboring states. These are ideas he floated unsuccessfully in the last legislative session. Both were defeated.

So Becker's lecture missed the mark.

That doesn't mean there isn't trouble in higher education or that higher education shouldn't change. It only means that Becker's target was the wrong one.

Structure isn't the problem with higher education in North Dakota. The problem is governance of the structure we have. The Board of Higher Education hasn't succeeded in creating an integrated system. In fact, it appears to have abandoned the effort. The board accepted the very deep cuts that the Legislature imposed, about 20 percent across the board. At last week's meeting, it renewed the contract of the sitting president who has most actively resisted a stronger system, thus effectively endorsing his insubordination.


Historically the board has been complacent about duplication at state institutions, and it has never conducted the sort of in-depth study of space utilization such as a legislative committee undertook. Nor did it effectively address maintenance issues. Instead, it built new buildings.

All of this occurred while the board should have been building a system of higher education, one focused on excellence and on efficiency.

What we need in North Dakota is stronger, more focused and more attentive management of the colleges and universities the constitution gives us, with more shared programs and more administrative efficiency.

Mike Jacobs, former editor and publisher of the Herald, writes weekly. His email address is .

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