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Burgum predicts bumpy transition for higher ed, praises protest resolution

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum meets with the Grand Forks Herald editorial board Wednesday, May 3, to discuss the 2017 legislative session. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS – North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum sees a future of disruption including -- but hardly limited to -- a reimagining of higher education in North Dakota.

In meetings Wednesday, May 3, with the editorial boards of The Forum and the Grand Forks Herald, the governor reflected on his first legislative session and the initial 100-plus days of his term, which started in the waning period of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

Of the protests themselves, Burgum said he was “grateful every day” that the dissolution of the pipeline resistance camps had ended in a relative peace.

“I’m not sure the average citizen of North Dakota understands how close we were to a Ruby Ridge, a Kent State, a Wounded Knee,” Burgum said. “That was not just a crisis for Morton County, it could have been a blemish on the state.”

The anti-pipeline protests at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball rivers, just north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation was a turbulent start for a new governor, though Burgum marks its close as an early success and a relief for him and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford.

“We’re both sleeping better,” Burgum said.

In reflecting on his time in office thus far, he pointed to the overlap of major developments in the protest -- such as the clean-up of “over 21 million tons of debris” from the evacuated camps -- and the conclusion of his first legislative session last week.

He said handling the final hours of the months-long protest was a “big focus of our office, but simultaneously we had ... hired new cabinet heads, put together virtually a whole new governor’s staff and were hitting it hard with how we were working with the Legislature” to formulate a path to reduced government spending while maintaining strategic priorities.

The state government would go on to reduce its overall general fund spending by about $1.7 billion over the upcoming 2017-19 biennium, a decrease Burgum cited as a “monumental task” to bring to light. He said it is likely the biggest single reduction in state spending since the Great Depression.

Of that sum, about $271.7 million in general fund spending was reduced from two-year higher education budgets across the North Dakota University System. Burgum campaigned with a promise to go beyond governing to reinvent government itself, promoting a more streamlined, efficient form of administration. That philosophy carries over into his view of higher education, which he described to the editorial board as in the midst of a national phase of transition which he characterized as “sort of bumpy.”

“What’s driving that, the root cause, is not North Dakota’s financial situation,” Burgum said, citing statistics which indicate high levels of per capita state investment in higher education. Rather, he said, the rate of progress in communications technology has increased the ability to transmit information and gain an education outside the bounds of campus lecture halls.

“Knowledge transfer can occur anytime, any place, any location,” he said. “We have to understand that that is going to cannibalize some of what universities have done in the past.”

Though research capabilities and specialized programs are less likely to be disrupted in the near future, Burgum said online access to a wide range of coursework calls into question the value of a more traditional, campus-based collegiate experience.

The governor said that value will vary among the 11 institutions of the NDUS though he said the underlying “business model” which underpins the system as a whole is under threat. He didn’t show any favor for eliminating NDUS schools but said economic forces and ease of access to online education would likely prompt some hard thought “in terms of delivery points.”

Burgum said defending any specific physical location for a state institution that could be largely replaced with a digital platform amounts to a sort of state-subsidized jobs program. North Dakotans “cling” too tightly to “the idea of location,” he said.

Though he said he understands why state legislators fight to maintain government employers -- such as institutions of higher education -- in their districts, Burgum said the practice doesn’t make sense on a larger scale.

“Is our job to deliver the highest-quality education at the lowest price, or is our job to create jobs in communities?” he asked. “Voters may choose to sub-optimize, may choose to pay higher taxes … but those are not political forces, the things I’m talking about aren’t Republican or Democrat. This is -- economics and technology are driving change, and does our Constitution and our culture allow us to change rapidly and well or does it keep us, hold us back from taking advantage of that? It’s going to be a balance.”

Forum News Director Dave Roepke contributed to this report.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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