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House majority leader : Change needed in oversight of ND higher ed

BISMARCK -- The North Dakota Legislature needs to be more engaged with higher education in light of recent issues involving the state's universities, House Majority Leader Al Carlson said Monday.

Carlson plans to appear before the interim Higher Education Committee on Friday in Bismarck to discuss several ideas.

Carlson tasked the committee in a recent letter with studying the structure of higher education, including the role of the state Board of Higher Education, the University System office and university presidents.

He wants legislators to consider changes to the system and asked the committee to look at ways to improve University System accountability.

He also asked the committee to talk to Dickinson State University's president about a recent audit that found major problems with diplomas awarded to international students.

Carlson wants information about potential issues for Dickinson State involving accreditation of the university, sanctions from federal agencies and legal ramifications.

The committee is to report its findings and recommendations to legislative leaders in November.

Carlson said he has authority to add studies to committees through his role as chairman of Legislative Management.

Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor of Towner said the issues at Dickinson State need to be examined, but he's concerned Carlson is using his position to "build his own case for his own ax to grind."

Last week, Carlson called a legislative meeting to hire an attorney to defend the law requiring the University of North Dakota to keep its Fighting Sioux nickname.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem asked the state Supreme Court to declare the law unconstitutional on behalf of the state Board of Higher Education, which believes the law infringed on the board's authority.

Carlson, who sponsored the law, said the lawsuit challenges legislative authority and the Legislature's role in addressing higher education issues.

Taylor, who serves on both the management and higher education committees, said he'd like to get back to talking about students and educating them for careers.

"There's a good reason that the voters in 1938 tried to remove politics from the system of higher education to a board of higher education," Taylor said.

Carlson said Monday he knows of residents drafting a measure related to higher education. He declined to provide their names and said they would publicize the proposal when they were ready.

Carlson said he will again bring up his proposal for a Department of Education, which was defeated in the last legislative session. This proposal will focus on a Department of Higher Education, he said.

"If nothing happens, nothing happens, but it needs to be talked about," Carlson said.

Carlson did not have a copy of his proposal ready Monday but said it would be done by Friday's legislative meeting.

Also Friday, the interim Higher Education Committee will hear about tuition and fees at each institution. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. CT in the Capitol.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.