FARGO – Imagine North Dakota with not one but three state boards of higher education.
That's what members of Gov. Doug Burgum's Task Force for Higher Education Governance did when they met Monday, Aug. 13.
The task force had been asked to weigh in on seven governance structures that could help the state's 11 institutions adapt faster to 21st century conditions.
The current structure of the State Board of Higher Education, or SBHE, as it’s existed since a 1938 constitutional amendment created it, had but one supporter and many opponents.
Burgum told the 15-member task force, which met at North Dakota State University's McGovern Alumni Center on Monday, he hopes any reform would make each institution more responsive to changes in demand for higher education.
For example, he said, he expects universities around the country will compete aggressively for the online education market and state institutions as they exist now may not be able to respond fast enough. Currently, online classes cost more than on-campus classes, he said.
But this implied need for greater autonomy among institutions could clash with the need for institutions to be accountable to stakeholders across the state, not just in their local area, according to state Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston.
Rich Novak, a consultant with AGB Consulting, agreed political realists recognize higher education boards have a tendency to advocate for the interests of their institutions, not necessarily the interests of the state as a whole. To make governance work, boards would have to be impressed on their statewide responsibilities, he said.
The most popular of the seven structures considered was one that had one board for each of the two research universities – NDSU and the University of North Dakota – and one board for the other nine institutions. These three boards would work with a kind of secretary of higher education who can advise them on statewide matters.
This is somewhat similar to public universities in Minnesota, which have a board controlling the University of Minnesota system and a board controlling the rest.
The second most popular structure had four boards, one each for the research universities, one for the four four-year universities and one for the two-year colleges. Again they, would work with a secretary of higher education.
Mark Hagerott, chancellor of the North Dakota University System warned that governance structures should take into account the fierce competition among institutions.
When Dickinson State University began plans to offer two-year degrees, he said, he got calls from presidents of two-year colleges demanding he force DSU to stay in its own lane and out of theirs.
At one point, one of the research universities – NDSU or UND – was trying to sabotage the others’ chance of getting a national grant, forcing SBHE members to intervene, he said.
Hagerott said he favored a structure that kept both research universities under one board rather than two because, culturally, they’re not ready for that.
The third most popular structure was keeping the state board as it exists now but with changes, such as adding more board members, having each member serve one long term instead of two short terms and eliminating the state residency requirement.
These are designed to make board members more resilient to pressure and bring in fresh talent.
SBHE Chairman Don Morton said one long term is better than two short terms because the first term is always spent avoiding upsetting anyone.
Hagerott said he likes allowing out-of-state members because many older people are interested in serving but, for their health, choose to live in warmer states.
The fourth most popular structure was having a board for both research universities and a board for the other nine institutions. They would also work with a secretary of higher education.
The task force on Monday picked the top four for further consideration at their next meeting in Bismarck on Sept. 28.
All of these would require a constitutional amendment approved by voters.
Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, reminded his colleagues that an amendment to get rid of the SBHE four years ago went down in flames.
Of the seven proposed structures, the most disliked option was one in which each institution has its own board, which would then report to the state board.
Novak said each new board would bring new costs, such as a staff member at every institution to serve as board secretary and travel and professional development budgets for each board member.