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Analysis: The issues and interests behind North Dakota's higher ed crisis

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Analysis: The issues and interests behind North Dakota's higher ed crisis
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

North Dakota looks poised for a big fight over higher education. Governing the state's colleges and universities has bedeviled the state since the beginning, and there have been several crises. The current situation seems heading in that direction.

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Here's a brief tutorial about the issues and the interests in play.

First, how is higher education to be governed? Who hires its leadership and to whom does it report? Who provides the funding? Who decides how it is used?

These are important questions and the answers are as urgent as they are uncertain. They involve public colleges, funded by tax dollars and educating the state's young people.

North Dakota's answer -- the current North Dakota University System -- grew out of a purge of faculty at the ag school, now North Dakota State University. An initiative entrenched the Board of Higher Education, which hired the commissioner of higher education.

The problem was that the board and its officers were weak, and every legislative session saw competition between the colleges and universities. In the 1980s, reformers tried to end that by strengthening the board and making the colleges more clearly subservient to the board and its officers. That didn't work, because not all the campuses played along. Under intense criticism from a variety of viewpoints for a variety of issues, the board reacted by hiring Hamid Shirvani to be chancellor in the hope that he would provide the tough leadership that would be necessary to build a real system.

Of course, there have been many permutations of these basic issues. A notable one occurred in the 1970s, when a referral attempted to end funding for the University of North Dakota. The state's Supreme Court disallowed the referral, arguing that the state constitution requires funding the university - and its sister institutions - since they are named in the document.

The court has never been asked to determine exactly what the relationship between the board and the Legislature is, however, and both are jealous of their own prerogatives. This is especially true of conservative legislators, who believe the higher education system should be directly responsible to them, or alternatively, to the governor.

The board and its supporters argue that would open the system to partisan abuse, precisely the kind of thing that led to the purge and the birth of the board in the first place.

So those are the ideological outlines -- with plenty of nuances, of course.

Then there are the interests.

These are myriad. To begin with, there are the taxpayers, of course. Then there are the communities in which the state's 11 state-supported institutions are located. Then there are alums of the institutions themselves. Then there are economic blocs. Most of the state's successful agribusiness people are aligned with NDSU. Virtually all of the state's lawyers are UND graduates. So are many of its doctors and its newspaper editors.

Let's not forget the students, who have their own interest in this battle.

Then there are the ideologues. Among these are populist conservatives who argue that the system is out of control, irresponsible, unresponsive, not accountable and too expensive. On the other side are what might be thought of as the education lobby, including thousands of people who work for the colleges and universities in the state.

All of these groups took notice last week when the relationship between campuses and the board office was reopened.

At its simplest, the controversy is about this relationship - but that masks the bigger, more complex issues at play.

This is more than a dispute between the chancellor and a single university president, although that's how the board has tried to portray it.

What's next?

A big legislative battle seems probable, and it could start Thursday, when the Senate Appropriations Committee will consider item that stirred all of this, an office for the chancellor in a technology building on the UND campus.

A fight over higher education has the potential to fracture the Republican legislative majority. The higher education web enmeshes most of them, often in contradictory ways. A coalition in support of the board isn't unthinkable, since that would be the least threatening outcome and supporters of individual schools might find common ground there. Or the idea of a strong system could be thrown over. This would lead to more competition for resources and more legislative involvement in managing the schools. Or voters may be asked to settle the issue by amending the constitution.

It may be that the governor will be the most important player. Jack Dalrymple is a Yale University graduate, and he may be among the few North Dakotans without an emotional tie to any of the state's colleges. He's also a pragmatic politician. So far, he's been quiet, at least publicly, about the storm that's brewing.

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