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Senate approves resolution to restructure higher ed board

BISMARCK -- After a third attempt, Senate lawmakers successfully passed a resolution to let voters decide if the State Board of Higher Education should be removed from the state constitution and be replaced by a full-time, three-member committee.

House Concurrent Resolution 3047 passed 25-21 and will be sent back to the House, which must approve of changes made in the Senate, or a compromise will need to be reached in a conference committee.

If approved, the proposal will be put on the 2014 ballot for a statewide vote, which is required because it involves a change to the constitution.

The state board has been involved with power struggles with the Legislature, which approves the North Dakota University System budget, as well as with presidents of individual universities. The board last year hired a new chancellor, hoping that Hamid Shirvani would be the strong leader the system needs.

But his blunt style has led some in the Legislature to question his leadership and the work of the board.

The resolution, which underwent a large change in the Senate, is aimed to solve those problems.

The measure, as it was proposed by Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, and passed out of the House, originally asked to remove the state board and create a director of a Department of Higher Education that would have been appointed by the governor, and serve as the chief executive officer with no advisory council.

Under the new resolution, the governor will appoint three full-time commissioners from a list of nominees agreed upon by two legislative leaders, the chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court, the superintendent of public instruction and a representative of an educational interest group.

One commissioner will must have leadership experience in a private sector business, a second must hold a professional position within the higher education sector and the third could be an at-large member.

The three would have to be confirmed by the Senate and would serve four-year terms.

Carlson said last week he likes the Senate changes to the resolution and will push to get it passed in the House.

Senators Gary Lee, R-Casselton, and Robert Erbele, R-Lehr, flipped their votes from last week, when the resolution failed on a 24-23 vote, to support the resolution. Sen. Spencer Berry, R-Fargo, voted against the resolution last week and was absent Monday.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, carried the resolution to the floor in the third attempt to get it passed. He said the Legislature should not be afraid to let North Dakotans make the decision.

The current governance structure -- one chancellor, eight part-time board members and 11 university presidents -- has too many layers, Hogue said.

"The real power lies in presidents and people who orbit around the president," he said. "The president of the university is the center of gravity for our higher education system. We need a direct interface between full-time individuals and college presidents."

Despite its third reconsideration, a new concern flared up during floor debate late Monday afternoon.

Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, said she didn't like the term, "limitations," in the language that said the commission would have "full executive responsibility for the management and operation of the North Dakota University System, within constitutional and statutory requirements and limitations."

Heckaman, and others, said the language will allow the Legislature to pass future legislation restricting an institution from researching or teaching certain areas.

"The very idea of an institution of higher education is to give faculty and students the opportunity to think outside the box," said Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks. "Academic freedom is a cornerstone of the founding of our country. I cannot believe we are standing here suggesting the legislative body can decide what kind of research goes on."

Hogue called the claim a "red herring," and a way to stir up more discussion. Others say there are already provisions in place that may create some limitations and there haven't been any issues.

Concerns also have come up that the new proposal would eliminate student and faculty involvement in the proposed structure.

Currently, the state board has one student member that is appointed by the governor.

The new proposal would allow the Legislature to appoint an advisory board to help the commission, but doesn't require one. The board could include a faculty and a student representative.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.