McFeely: New NDSU president says it's 'reasonable' to assume enrollment will 'continue to drop a little bit'
David Cook sat down with Forum columnist Mike McFeely for a wide-ranging question-and-answer session on challenges and positives at North Dakota State University
FARGO — David Cook took his seat as North Dakota State University's president on May 17, 2022, and quickly embarked on a two-week statewide tour of North Dakota, meeting with citizens and state legislators on their home turf.
"I'm a big believer in building relationships. There will be tough times ahead and we'll sometimes agree to disagree, but I hope that they can appreciate that I'm trying to do the right thing for the institution and for the state," Cook said in an hour-long interview in his office last week.
Cook takes over from Dean Bresciani, who led NDSU for 12 years and had a sometimes contentious relationship with legislators and the State Board of Higher Education. Cook clearly is trying to smooth those waters.
But some of the same issues that challenged Bresciani remain. Enrollment at NDSU is at a 15-year low. The school is trying to navigate how to best blend traditional on-campus learning with online technology. And because of falling enrollment, NDSU faces budget difficulties.
A major topic on campus is a report from Chicago-based Huron Consulting Group that recommends ways of meeting the budget challenges. Recommendations include increasing class sizes when possible, limiting low-enrollment courses, and merging or closing redundant courses and sections.
Cook touched on several pressing matters, and some not so pressing. Here is his interview with The Forum in Q and A form. The interview has been edited for length and clarity, including some questions and answers that have been left out entirely.
Q: What's the No. 1 concern you hear about North Dakota State as you've traveled all over the state and met with dozens of stakeholders?
A: "That's interesting, you know, because I've heard a ton of very positive things. A lot of it's been about what we mean to the state, and how critical and important that is. What you hear from people is their deep appreciation for how we serve the state and serve the land grant mission. It was important to get outside of Fargo, outside of Cass County, to hear that. I think they want to know that the new guy, the new president, cares about that land grant and continues to make that a real priority. And that is across the board in terms of how we serve as a workforce driver, economic development driver for the state and how it's important to see not only the president but people across the institution, knowing that the land grant is truly an important mission and that we continue to serve North Dakota is a top priority."
Q: OK. But that's not a concern, that's not an issue. That's 'people love NDSU around the state.' Media are talking about enrollment, about your relationship with the Legislature or the State Board of Higher Education. Have you heard about those things?
A: "Well, to push back a tiny bit ... I mean, I think their concern on that would be that they want to make sure that the new president is going to continue to say that that's a priority. If that didn't happen, that would concern them. So, you know, certainly enrollment is a big deal for anybody in the Midwest. It's a big deal for us. We've been struggling with enrollment for a couple of years now. The way we were funded from the state with the funding formula and of course, then with tuition revenue, that's going to be critical. And we have to make that a priority. ... So I think that's an issue you hear out across the state. It's certainly an issue that I hear internally when I look at the data, that's gonna have to be a priority in terms of how we organize and focus our efforts."
Q: Is enrollment going to continue to drop? Does your data show that?
A: "I'm waiting to see what first day looks like. So a little uncertain, but I do think it's reasonable to assume that it's going to continue to drop a little bit and then we'll see where we end up going from there. I think we need to make it, and I will make it, a top priority to get this on everybody's radar screen. And like I said, an important point that's often missed on this is that we actually do a good job of recruiting freshmen here. We have to do a better job at recruiting transfer students. And we don't do a bad job, but we can do a better job with retaining students because you already got them here so let's make sure that they stay and let's make sure that they're successful. But that's a big part of the enrollment story that sometimes people forget about."
Q: As best as I can discern, the decline in enrollment led to a $3.5 million deficit or thereabouts. Is that strictly enrollment driven?
A: "We have baked-in budget challenges that are all based on enrollment. That's correct. That's right. And those are in front of us and those are known and that will be what we'll be talking about when we go to the Legislature this next year."
Q: What's a realistic enrollment number for NDSU? I know we just got done talking about it could possibly drop some more, but for years and years before you got here, it was 'We want to have this number' or 'We're ahead of this school' or whatever. Is there a number out there that's realistic for NDSU?
A: "I think that's a great question. I'm sincerely not prepared to answer because I don't know. I haven't done my homework on it. But I think that's exactly the kind of thinking that we need to do. We've got to figure out what makes the most sense in terms of where we want to be with enrollment, and candidly organize and reorganize in terms of who we are to meet that number."
Q: Is bigger always better when it comes to enrollment?
A: "No, but we get caught up in that game sometimes. I think we've got to figure out who we are, who we want to be. Part of this is there's a great opportunity to really kind of transform what we want this place to be based on what our mission is. And for me, that's thinking about the workforce needs, the economic development needs, what is the research that we can focus on and figure out how to be really good at that. The number is important, but thinking about what makes the most sense and then investing in that mission in terms of where we need to be moving forward five to 10 years. I think as we work through that, that's where I can probably give you a better number."
Q: How important are online classes, online learning, and even a hybrid model to the enrollment picture?
A: "I think it's important. We have to realize that there's different student markets out there. Non-traditional students. There's a lot of folks who want to come back who are working. Online is one of the tools that you use to reach those folks. Obviously there are potential students across the state. Online is a great tool to help get them there. And so it's something that I'm going to talk about. I mean, I still want to prioritize and value that in-person, on-campus student experience ..."
Q: So let me interrupt you because that's my next question. There are obviously different views of where higher education should go, including several years ago when the governor of the state was all-in on online learning and saying "brick and mortar is dead." Your stance on brick and mortar sounds like it's still important.
A: "I think it's incredibly important. I have two kids right now who are in college. I talk to them probably every day. We talk about what's happening in school and what they're thinking about for the next semester, but there's so many things you learn as a student that are in the classroom but also outside the classroom. We have 300 clubs that people can get involved with. Students are learning how to live in dorms, live with people, live in a Greek system or get involved with other things. I mean, that's all part of it. And that's part of growing up and part of growing and experiencing and figuring out who you are and where you want to go. The in-the-classroom part is huge, but the rest of it's a big deal as well.
"The in-person future of higher education I still think is very bright, very important. But to me, it's not mutually exclusive. The online side, that's still going to be really important in a lot of different ways. It could be for completely different markets, non-traditional students across the state, as I talked about. It's also different ways to help facilitate what we're doing on campus in terms of giving some flexibility for students. Whereas as you can take a lot of different classes, but maybe a hybrid makes sense for some courses or taking a class online mixed in. I think those are all exactly the kind of things that we need to be thinking about. And candidly, you know, future generations grew up in an environment where technology is kind of what they're used to and how they're going to learn and we have to be ready for them as well."
Q: I talked to some of your faculty in doing some prep work for this. The one thing that came up I think in every discussion or exchange I had was the Huron report. There are concerns about the Huron report for sure from an academic and a faculty perspective. What is your general view of the report?
A: "In my past at other institutions, I've engaged with Huron and worked with them in a lot of ways. So I'm familiar with Huron and the work that they do. And the fact is that it's not uncommon at all that, you know, they come out and they make a lot of recommendations. They do a lot of really good work, but there's going to be a general concern or criticism of how they handle or how they manage through these things. This is a huge report, taking on a ton of different things. That said, they're truly national leading experts in what they do. They know what they're doing. They have worked with hundreds, if not thousands of other institutions to do these kinds of things. These are experts in what they do. So I think that it's incredibly valuable and I'm, candidly, very appreciative that they've been here because they've done a lot of hard things, driven a lot of data, given me opportunities to be in a position to make strategic decisions and do hard things because this work has been done."
Q: Some of the concerns that I've heard is that when you're talking about making "hard decisions," it's that Huron is looking to cut to be more efficient. Where can you cut to do this? How can you combine classes? Can you eliminate majors? Can you eliminate staff? So how do you assure quality faculty and quality education if you're coming at it strictly from a cuts standpoint?
A: "We've got to be thinking about where to cut. We've got to be thinking about where to merge. We've got to be thinking about where to invest. Huron is giving us information to inform that decision-making process. So I think for us, we take the information and then we take local experts and people who really deeply understand the curriculum, the programs, what we're trying to do academically, who can judge the validity of that information, and that's what we're doing. So not taking Huron's recommendations on their word, but rather taking them as a starting point to making decisions and tough decisions and that's exactly the direction we're going to be going this fall."
Q: Is there a danger in a report like this that it's looking too much at higher education as a strict cost-benefit analysis? As a fan of higher education, and a college graduate, I think there has to be more to going to a university than just, "I am going to be trained for a job and I am going to go out and get a job." I think it's important that you learn about other things as well. So is there danger in that it's a cost-benefit analysis more than a holistic approach to education?
A: "I think your question is great advice and a cautionary tone in terms of, yeah, this is a tool, it's giving us a certain amount of information. It's something that we need to consider as we're kind of looking at all the information that's there. And then once you get it, it helps you kind of have a starting conversation. ... At the end of the day, we have a tough environment that we're in, we have tough decisions that we have to make. We have to really consider all the different variables that are out there to help us make the right choices and a big part of that is how do we continue to honor and invest in, you know, what higher education means to us. What is the meaning of a liberal arts education, which is absolutely critical. I will tell you time and time again, when you talk to business and industry folks, the kinds of things they want from a graduate are the things that they learned from critical thinking, working in teams, great communication skills, great writing. Those are at the core of what we do, and so we have to continue to respect them, while at the same time navigating a really tough financial environment that we're facing here, that everybody in the Midwest and in higher ed nationally is facing."
Q: I know you have to walk a very fine line here, but I'll ask this question because one of your faculty asked me to ask it. North Dakota is a very prosperous state right now. Every time I turn around I'm hearing about oil money, and they have X billions of dollars in the Legacy Fund, and this and that. So why do I keep hearing that it's a difficult budget situation for higher education? Could the formula be tweaked so that it's not so dependent on enrollment?
A: "Again, we have a funding formula and budget that was put in place that everybody rallied behind eight, nine years ago. I think people liked and appreciated it. The reality is that enrollment is tough in the Upper Midwest, and in North Dakota and in the Midwest. I don't know if I know enough to fully answer the question. I just have a lot more to learn."
Q: Speaking of the Legislature, have you had a chance to talk with legislators and top legislative leaders around the state? What's your relationship with them because it was not so good at times for your predecessor, President Bresciani?
A: "I have done so in a number of different ways. So, of course, during the two-week tour, I made it a priority to meet with legislators along the way. I met with a dozen at least, if not two dozen, legislators through that process from different parts of the state. I thought it was important to meet with them candidly in their hometown and get to know them and ask them questions. What does the state land grant mean? What does the new president need to be thinking about? What advice do you have for me? I'm a big believer in building relationships. There will be tough times ahead and we'll sometimes agree to disagree, but I hope that they can appreciate that I'm trying to do the right thing for the institution and for the state. I think it helps to get to know each other first, so you have conversations first. I've done that across the state. I've done that locally, as well. And I think I've been given a very warm reception. I sincerely mean that. People have been great to me and appreciative that we're having those conversations now."
Q: I know it's very early and I know they just hired you, but what's your relationship thus far with the State Board of Higher Education? Have you ever been in contact with them on any sort of regular basis since you took the job?
A: "The State Board of Higher Ed meets routinely, so quite a few interactions there. We have some routine meetings. So I've been to Bismarck, I've been to Bottineau and other locations across the state meeting with the state board. We've done some retreats, engaged with all the presidents at those retreats. The trip to Bottineau, I got the chance to drive up with (University of North Dakota president) Andy Armacost, which was important. And so that's a really important relationship, I know, and us figuring out how to work together I think is critical."
Q: How can you work together with UND? That's the question every president here gets in their first interview.
A: "I think part of it is similar to like what I said with the legislators: You have to get to know each other. You have to build a good relationship. I feel very good about that relationship. Sincerely. I'm very fortunate. I think you have a person up there who's really talented, who has an incredible resume, who is very genuine and I think we share similar goals of just wanting to do what's right and what's best. I feel very good about that. How can we work together? I think it's in a number of ways and I think it's already happening pretty routinely. I'm thinking about research, research grants, how can we go in together to complement one another's strengths? Those are for federal dollars, those are for state dollars. So those things are happening. I think moving forward as well. There's probably possibilities around academic programs. How can we put things out there that are complementary? Are there chances where we could be working together sharing courses? Those kind of conversations we've had in general, but we could have more moving forward."
Q: Again, speaking with one of your faculty members, he told me he feels that since COVID, that the campus hasn't totally come back as an academic community. Whether it's just visiting with people or getting together as faculty and staff. Do you get that sense? Have you heard that from other people as well?
A: "I have picked up on it a little bit. A little bit of the hard part for me, too, has been that I started May 17 and met as many people as I could and then they said, 'OK, we'll see you in August.' Obviously a lot of the administrators are still here and working their tails off all summer, but the academic community for the most part are coming back now. And so I think I still have to get a sense and a gauge of the campus and the campus community. And so a big part of what I plan to do is to meet with every unit between now and the end of the semester. I think that's important. I have an idea coming together of creating a group that I'll meet with more or less monthly, which is 100-plus people where we just have a conversation. I've announced that recently. I've seen that done in other places and it works really well. So I do have an element of, 'I still got a lot to learn.' ... I do think now's the time we have to bring people back together. We have a lot of challenges."
Q: I have been very out front about my support for NDSU moving up a level athletically to FBS. Since I've been able to travel around to other Division I communities and seen what other places even in the Missouri Valley Football Conference are like, my thought is, 'Why can't Fargo move to a different neighborhood? Why can't it be in the neighborhood with Fresno or San Jose or Colorado Springs?' That's why I think NDSU should be very aggressive and looking to get to whatever the next level might be. I think it's not only an athletics thing and a university thing, but it's also a community thing.
A: "You know, I do think one of the greatest things about this institution is athletics and what it's done for the community, what it's done for the brand. Being a Bison or being related to NDSU is something that people recognize across the Midwest, if not across the nation. And a big part of that is because of the success that we've had. I see how opportunities and success that we have in that space elevate the institution and elevate the community. No question about it."