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The Forum Ed Board: A blatant violation of tradition

FARGO -- University of North Dakota President Ed Schafer stumbled when he endorsed a candidate in the hotly contested Republican primary contest for governor. With only a few weeks to go at the helm of UND, the former governor, former U.S. secret...

FARGO -- University of North Dakota President Ed Schafer stumbled when he endorsed a candidate in the hotly contested Republican primary contest for governor. With only a few weeks to go at the helm of UND, the former governor, former U.S. secretary of agriculture, former fish farm executive and perennial cheerleader for all things Medora, said he supports Fargo businessman Doug Burgum over Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. In doing so, Schafer jumped with both temporary academic feet into politics, thus thumbing his nose at North Dakota’s tradition of trying to keep politics out of higher education.

Can you imagine the firestorm that would have flared had North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani (or any other campus president) pulled a similar stunt? The long knives, led by parochial legislators and woefully uninformed former legislators, would have been out to have Bresciani’s head. Indignant members of the State Board of Higher Education would have called NDSU’s leader on the carpet. University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott would have waved an accusing finger at Bresciani. After all, it was the chancellor who went all serious when Bresciani dared to sit in a comfortable airplane seat on an NDSU trip to the other side of the globe.

Yet, voices from the chancellor’s office, the higher ed board and quick-to-condemn lawmakers have been silent about a blatant injection of politics into higher ed by the president of the state’s self-defined “flagship” university.

Schafer didn’t break the law. He did not ignore policy, because there is no policy about political endorsements. He did, however, violate a decades-old tradition that goes to the heart and structure of North Dakota’s semi-autonomous higher education system. While he has stressed the importance of the higher ed “system,” he opted for a lone-wolf political endorsement that erodes efforts by the chancellor, the board and enlightened legislators to forge a stronger, collaborative university system.

Schafer has every right to support a candidate. But because of his role at UND, his preference should have remained private. The embarrassingly silent higher ed board and the chancellor’s office have some soul-searching to do. The time may come when the board seeks another interim president on a major campus. If Schafer, by virtue of his budget work at UND, is on the list, his decision to taint higher education with politics should be prominent in the discussion.

Related Topics: DOUG BURGUMWAYNE STENEHJEM
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