‘Real challenges’ present ‘grand opportunity,’ new NDSU president says
David Cook, NDSU's 15th president, confronts enrollment and budgetary challenges. He will deliver his first state of the university address on Sept. 30.
FARGO — David Cook has been immersing himself in back-to-school rituals and duties as he settles into the beginning of his first complete year as president of North Dakota State University.
He recently helped some students as they moved into dormitories, has toured the state and met with deans as preparations are being made to inaugurate a new budgeting process in the coming fiscal year.
Perhaps surprisingly for a university president, Cook is the first in his family to graduate from college. That’s not uncommon at NDSU, however, where a third of the student body are the first in their families to pursue college degrees.
The son of working-class parents — his father was a linotype operator at a newspaper, his mother worked in the home and at an agricultural company — Cook said his upbringing was nonetheless comfortably middle-class.
Many of Cook’s friends and classmates were faculty members at Iowa State University in his hometown, Ames. “Growing up in a college town, you’re around it,” he said. “It was kind of in my DNA.”
Still, his family dealt with struggles. Cook has a vivid memory of his father fearing that the impending sale of the newspaper where he worked would thrust him out of a job. So in partnership with one of Cook’s uncles, his father bought a Maid-Rite franchise, a restaurant chain serving loose-meat sandwiches that is an Iowa institution.
In the end, his father kept his newspaper job and ended up owning several successful Maid-Rite locations. But the stress made his father lose his voice for a year.
“This is a great news story,” he said in a wide-ranging discussion with The Forum Editorial Board. “It all worked out right.”
Early in his own higher education, Cook was interested in a career as a lawyer and studied political science and speech communication during his undergraduate days at Iowa State University.
But he chose a different path. In graduate school at the University of Kansas, he studied international communication with an emphasis on health and technology and then went to work for an engineering firm in Shanghai, China.
His ensuing career in academia led him to a series of administrative positions. Before taking the helm at NDSU, Cook was vice chancellor for the Office of Public Affairs and Economic Development at the University of Kansas. His responsibilities included shaping the university’s strategic priorities.
At NDSU, Cook is challenged by enrollment that has slid to its lowest level in 15 years, a trend confronting many colleges and universities in the Midwest.
He has announced that he sees no signs of a turnaround in the near term — a sobering prognosis that carries budgetary implications, since the state’s funding formula is driven by enrollment.
Cook hasn’t offered specific public comment on recommendations by a consulting firm that include increasing class sizes when possible, limiting low-enrollment courses, and merging or closing redundant courses and sections.
“I’m just trying to listen and learn and understand things,” he said.
A glimpse of where Cook plans to steer NDSU will be provided when he delivers his first state of the university address on Sept. 30.
Although circumspect about the specifics, Cook acknowledges the gravity of the economic terrain he must navigate. “Inflation’s hitting us hard,” he said.
Declining enrollment stems from population and demographic changes in the Midwest. “We’ve got to change and evolve,” Cook said. In tradition-bound higher education, “We’re not naturally good at that.”
One way to evolve is to respond to the needs of nontraditional students, including working adults, through certification offerings in addition to traditional degree programs, which can be “stackable” and achieved in weeks instead of months or years.
“It’s more bite-sized pieces,” he said. “It’s all changing. ... There’s a lot of directions to go; I think these things all need to be on the table.”
Is the traditional four-year baccalaureate degree going to disappear?
“I don’t think it’s going to be that dramatic anytime soon,” Cook said.
Enrollment is also closely tied to retention, “which to me is all about student success,” he said.
In order to best meet the needs of the state and its students, NDSU must clearly define its role, Cook said. That is more important in his view than setting an arbitrary numeric enrollment goal. “That doesn’t make any sense to me,” Cook said.
Higher education is too expensive, saddling students with burdensome debt loads. “We’ve got to continue to make this thing more affordable” by becoming more efficient and thinking more like a business, he said.
“I think we have real challenges,” Cook said. “I genuinely believe this is a grand opportunity. That’s exciting.”
To encourage a more innovative administrative approach, Cook is implementing an incentive-driven budgeting process, starting with the next fiscal year, beginning July 1.
“That will help our deans, I think, be more entrepreneurial,” he said. “Sometimes, how the money works drives behavior.”
NDSU has real assets to build upon, he said, including its top-level status as a research institution, which the university must continue to strengthen.
“We’ve got to invest more,” he said.
The NDSU Foundation recently posted a record $586.7 million fundraising campaign, announced in February. “It’s not about the number,” Cook said. “It’s about what it represents.”
Cook praised the student body. “The students here — I want to say we don’t know how good we have it,” he said. “They’re special.”
Similarly, Cook said that during his interview and in his dealings since, he’s been impressed with faculty, students and citizens alike. “The people, the people, the people,” he said, summarizing his favorable impression.