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Speaking their minds: Business, education leaders express views on Legislature, higher ed at roundtable

Press Photo by Bryan Horwath North Dakota University System interim chancellor Larry Skogen, left, speaks with Greater North Dakota Chamber President Andy Peterson following the Higher Education Partnership roundtable Tuesday in Dickinson.

One Dickinson businessman believes the time has come for the North Dakota Legislature to meet annually.

Making his comments at a meeting of the Higher Education Partnership in Dickinson on Tuesday, Steffes Corp. CEO Joe Rothschiller said it’s an idea that could make sense.

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“I’m not advocating this, but it came up two years ago at some of the steering committee meetings that we had around the state and that is does North Dakota need to meet annually as a Legislature?” Rothschiller said. “If we’re growing so rapidly, how the hell can we met every two years and address the needs of our customers, constituents and citizens of North Dakota? Higher ed talks about implementing something in 2019 and, in business, we’re dead in the water.”

Part of a series of regional meetings throughout the state, the partnership met at the Biesiot Activities Center on the Dickinson State University campus and featured western North Dakota higher education and business leaders, including North Dakota University System Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen, DSU President D.C. Coston, Greater North Dakota Chamber President Andy Peterson and former North Dakota State University President Jim Ozbun.

Arranged by the Greater North Dakota Chamber, the goal of the meetings is to “bring together the state’s business and higher education leadership to discuss and address North Dakota’s workforce issues.” About 15 representatives of businesses and education organizations were at the hour-long, sit-down discussion.

Among the issues discussed were day care, recruiting employees to western North Dakota and retaining them, and the feasibility of programs such as Train ND, which was originally established by the Legislature in 1999 to help give state businesses an influx of trained workers.

Cynthia Pemberton, DSU provost and vice president for academic affairs, said western North Dakota’s economic and educational landscape has changed dramatically in the past decade.

“Ten years ago, the context may have been very different,” Pemberton said. “But right now, the environment has changed. I had a meeting recently with department chairs and one of them asked about developing some training programs. That person wasn’t aware that, under Train ND, we can’t do that unless we have a change from the system level. That model is a really deep-seeded source of frustration for the business community with the university because we are unable to even try — we’re not even authorized.”

Coston said St. Joseph’s Hospital President Reed Reyman brought a proposal to DSU last spring to establish a number of allied health care programs. The university was unable to tie the knot for the agreement.

DSU’s president added one of the main challenges for the western North Dakota business community is to find a way to keep employees in “the Mountain Time Zone,” which begins at the Stark County line east of Dickinson.

“Let’s just be honest about it,” Reyman said. “That’s why people are frustrated with higher ed. D.C. wants to do all he can to help and DSU wants to do whatever it can to help, but they get held up with whatever the political process is between here and there. The answer might be, ‘Well we already have that certain program in the state and it’s in Grand Forks.’ That’s wonderful, but it doesn’t do us diddly-squat here in Dickinson.”

Partly because the NDUS is ultimately given its marching orders by the Legislature, Peterson said the Legislature could benefit from being more diverse.

“If you look at our Legislature, it does not protect your job if you run for office,” Peterson said. “A lot of states do that differently, so there are a wide variety of folks who run for the Legislature. In North Dakota, if you run, they don’t have to guarantee your job if you come back. I’ve heard of several legislators recently who were told that they won’t have a job if they go back to the Legislature. That’s unfortunate, because what you get is a lot of retired folks who end up running. There’s nothing in the world wrong with retired folks, but wouldn’t it be great to have a wide variety of ages at the Legislature to gain some fresh perspectives?”

Following partnership meetings in recent weeks in Devils Lake, Grand Forks, Fargo and Jamestown, Peterson called Tuesday’s discussion the “most interesting” to date.

“What I hear is that every one is well-intended, but we — at times — don’t talk to each other,” Peterson said after the roundtable. “Because of that, I think we walk away with frustrations. For me, these meetings are a way to start the discussion. The encouraging part is getting higher education and business leaders and the community together to talk about things in a way that will result in something. This is the beginning, it’s not the end.”

Skogen said he understands new avenues may have to be paved in order to keep up with the fast-moving business landscape in western North Dakota.

“What I heard today is we have to find ways to do new and creative things in higher education and I’m a big fan of that,” Skogen said. “We need to continue to have the conversation about how higher education in North Dakota can better serve western North Dakota. We have a plethora of higher education in the eastern part of the state and all this development going on in the west. We just have to figure out how to get more services out here.”

Skogen praised DSU’s accounting program as being a model for future program enhancements or additions and said an added message he’s heard is that western North Dakota could use more technical training options — especially south of Williston.

Reyman summed up his thoughts by echoing what he believes has been a growing mindset in western North Dakota.

“The state doesn’t stop at Highway 83,” Reyman said. “We have great educational institutions in the state. We just have to be able to tap into them without having to drive 200 miles to do it and change time zones. Things have changed — the world doesn’t end at Interstate 94 and 83 in Bismarck.”

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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