Local legislators to fight for DSU funding

Local legislators are working in Bismarck to secure the funds needed to support Dickinson State University and prevent the nursing program from being eliminated.

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Local legislators will vie for funding for Dickinson State University amidst budget cuts. (Press file photo)

Local legislators are working in Bismarck to secure the funds needed to support Dickinson State University and prevent the nursing program from being eliminated.

This effort may be especially necessary if the state Legislature follows Gov. Doug Burgum's budget proposal that he made Monday, which called for an additional 5 percent cut to higher education. DSU already had heightened concerns regarding its nursing program after the school's president, Thomas Mitzel, announced last Friday that the program may be eliminated depending on the severity of the cuts the school will face this biennium.

"I think at the end of the day, all these cuts, that's the reality of our budget situation," said Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-District 36. "As much as our budgets have grown over the last four bienniums, I think it's appropriate that all budgets take a look."

However, Armstrong noted that the legislators will focus on special circumstances for DSU - perhaps allocating a one-time appropriation to help the university through the next biennium.

"They've been on the right track right now, and the cut that they have over the allotted budget would essentially mean losing our nursing program," he said. "I think that's a terrible idea, both because there's a nursing shortage in North Dakota and the nation, but because they have done a great job at DSU of turning everything around the last couple of years, and we need to build on that momentum, not cut it off."


Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-District 37, pointed out that the university has also experienced two rounds of cuts prior to this legislative session and may not be able to handle a third.

"We have made our cuts. ...We have done the cutting and the cutting at our university, so I would be very reluctant to see anything further because we have got to be able to maintain a quality institution for our people," she said.

Alumni in the Legislature

Majority Caucus Leader Rep. Mike Lefor, R-District 37, said that the local lawmakers have been working closely with Mitzel for months knowing that the school would face some challenges going into this biennium. Currently, the local legislators are meeting with other lawmakers to explain the needs of DSU and the extent of the damage to the university if it sustains further cuts.

"Right now I am reasonably confident that we will be able to get the funding that we need for Dickinson State, but obviously any legislative session has a lot of twists and turns," Lefor said. "I do believe that members on the Senate and House appropriations side are already well-versed in what the needs for Dickinson State University are."

Lefor, who graduated from DSU, also said that these legislators are aware that there is an increase in enrollment, retention and recruitment at the school, so DSU will be fine in the future if the Legislature can assist them in getting through this coming biennium.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-District 37, said current state funding for DSU is based on the school's enrollment from two years ago. If it was based on the school's current enrollment, it would be an entirely different story, he said.

Wardner and the other district 37 representatives have known that DSU was going to face financial challenges this biennium, something that they have been working on even before the legislative session started.


"We're trying to build support for the DSU shortfall. They've gone through some unusual circumstances over the past six years, and everybody understands that," Wardner said. "... I'm optimistic. I think we're going to be able to get some help for DSU, and they can get through this next two years."

As an alumnus, Wardner also pointed out the importance of having a university in Dickinson offering a more affordable option to residents interested in pursuing a college degree rather than needing to leave the area.

"They took care of me at one time, and I sure was appreciative of all that they've done," Wardner said. "I think they've done a good job over the years. We just need to get them back on track, and they will continue to help young people for many years to come."

DSU's impact on Dickinson

Dickinson City Administrator Shawn Kessel spoke on behalf of DSU for legislators along with Mitzel on Monday. He said he views Dickinson and DSU as "one in the same."

"When you're advocating for DSU, you are also advocating for the city," he said.

DSU has been a part of his family's life for generations. Kessel's father was a student at DSU before enlisting in the military, his son currently attends and Kessel previously worked as an adjunct professor at the university.

The school is important to the city because of all the partnerships people develop by going to school in Dickinson and then potentially getting a job in the area, he said.


"A graduate now maybe spends money at the foundation, or maybe they're an adjunct faculty in the future," Kessel said. "Maybe they're a legislator down the road and can think fondly of their days at DSU. You never know where those connections are going to lead, and it's just important that they be able to continue to create those connections."

He also addressed the importance the school has on the private sector in the area - particularly the impact DSU's nursing program has on the healthcare industry. Over the last five years there has been significant investments made in Dickinson's private healthcare sector.

"It far exceeds $200 million, and I just think it sends the wrong message if the public sector through the college would have to close its nursing program," Kessel said. "It's not a partnership that we want to jeopardize because that sector of Dickinson is doing so well right now, that medical sector. And DSU provides the nexus between two of the great pillars that you need to have a great city, and that's quality education and quality healthcare. Those are two of the four great pillars."

He also noted that there is not a public, four-year campus in North Dakota within 150 miles of DSU.

"I'm very concerned about the state of education, of higher education, and being able to maintain quality programs in the face of such large revenue cuts," Kessel said. "I don't know how it will affect Dickinson specifically, but obviously it's going to be a head-scratcher for all of the university presidents and the chancellor to try to come up with additional funds."

Wardner said that all the state's budgets are on the table, so the Legislature will sift through them to try to find more revenue somewhere.

Ultimately it is still early in the four-month session.

"I have absolutely no doubt that Dickinson State will grow, and we are going to do everything we can here in Bismarck to make absolutely sure that happens," Lefor said.

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