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Dennis: Not the students, but the state

In his recent presentation to the Board of Higher Education, Larry Skogen said that as interim chancellor, he'd put the emphasis on students.

"So often, we sometimes lose track of the fact that we have the students and we are doing this for the students," Skogen told the board. "They are the most important stakeholder, and we have to keep that in focus."

Now, Skogen has won the job he was applying for. But in a twist, his success as interim chancellor may depend on his deliberately breaking his vow.

For what the North Dakota University System needs today is not a focus on students.

What the system needs is a focus on the state.

It's a subtle difference, but a crucial one. And it's the star by which Skogen should steer over the next 20 months.

The 20-month limit, of course, is there because in November of next year, North Dakota voters will decide whether to eliminate the board and chancellor entirely. There'll be lots of talk between now and then about which system would better serve North Dakota -- the current structure or the alternative of a three-person board.

But for now, let's assume Skogen and the board sincerely believe the current structure is best. If that's the case, then the key question facing them is this: How could North Dakota voters be persuaded to share that view?

Asked in that way, the answer is obvious: North Dakota voters will retain the system if they feel it best advances the interests of the state. So, Skogen's job depends on his success at keeping the state -- not the students -- at the head of the line.

Why not the students?

Because in practical terms, putting "students first" means that other key constituencies get short shrift.

Taxpayers are one. A "students first" focus likely would lead to calls for ever-lower tuition. But who, then, would pick up the tab, especially if the system also shorts the goal of controlling costs?

The answer is taxpayers -- and right now, taxpayers are in no mood to shoulder that extra expense.

Employers are another core group. Employers want graduates who've been trained with rigor and will enter the labor force with disciplined habits. The U.S. Naval Academy is an example of a school that puts "employers" -- in this case, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps -- first. That's an extreme, but it shows how employers' interests and students' interests don't automatically coincide.

Lawmakers are another core constituency, and their unhappiness shows in the fact that they put the board-and-chancellor on the 2014 ballot in the first place.

Clearly, for the university system to succeed, all of these groups must feel that the system responds to their interests. And the way to strike that balance is to keep uppermost the quality that the groups share: They're all residents of the 39th state.

The North Dakota Constitution -- the university system's founding document -- puts it this way: "Government is instituted for the protection, security and benefit of the people." Not the students, the employers or the lawmakers; instead, the people, meaning all of the people of the state. That's the NDUS's reason for being, and that's the direction in which its strongest future lies.

Dennis is the opinion editor of the Grand Forks Herald,

which is a part of Forum News Service.

Email him at tdennis@gfherald.com.

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