Gov. Doug Burgum promises a task force he’s forming will take a fresh look at the state’s higher education system. Its focus, he said, will be on governance.
The governor plans to appoint 15 people to the task force and he’ll chair it. He’s taking applications until Nov. 30 and hopes to hold the first meeting sometime next month.
It certainly makes sense to review the higher education system. There has been a lot of turmoil with the chancellor, higher education board, university presidents and the Legislature for a long time. A little friction between the board and Legislature is understandable as they debate budgets. Unfortunately, the disagreements go beyond budget debates. The chancellor’s office has seemed to have a revolving door, with chancellors leaving due to a variety of conflicts.
Burgum has indicated he wants to examine the governance structure and isn’t interested in closing any of the state’s 11 colleges or universities. North Dakota voters have shown a reluctance to make major changes in higher education. They have refused to approve measures that would allow the state to close some colleges or universities. They also easily defeated a proposal three years ago to replace the higher education board with a three-member, full-time commission appointed by the governor. The present board has eight part-time members appointed by the governor along with advisory members who can’t vote.
The board has authority over the 11 colleges and universities, but the Legislature controls the purse strings. This gives lawmakers a lot of clout since they decide how the money is allocated.
If Burgum’s task force can find ways to smooth out higher education operations it will be a major accomplishment. In an opinion article for the Tribune, Burgum wrote:
"Creating such a system requires a governance structure that is nimble and empowers our educational leaders and faculty to make responsive decisions that enable our system to remain economically viable amid external forces transforming education across the world."
Burgum says he has an open mind about what the task force will do. He argues times change quickly and what voters rejected three years ago doesn’t automatically disqualify the proposal. Burgum wants the task force to develop recommendations for the 2019 Legislature and there might be proposals that have to go to the voters. That gives the task force a little over a year to complete its work, no easy job. It will be interesting to see who the governor appoints to the task force since it could be an indication of the direction he wants to go.
The Tribune Editorial Board believes the state’s higher education system can be improved. Whether that means a change in structure — a smaller higher education board, eliminating the chancellor or giving the chancellor more power — needs to be studied. The ultimate goal is to produce graduates who will lead the state through the century.
This isn’t going to be easy. The task force no doubt will get a lot of ideas, some conflicting. Agreeing on recommendations could be tough and getting approval of the Legislature and the voters could be tougher. It’s a challenge the state needs to tackle and the governor is right to launch the effort. If successful it will pay dividends for years to come.