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Mike Jacobs: It's not money North Dakota universities are short of

The situation facing higher education in North Dakota is distressing. Perhaps there is comfort in understanding that this has happened before.

And worse.

Except that there seems to be an important difference. At every instance in the past, North Dakotans have rallied to the colleges. This happened most recently in 2014, when voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have abolished the Board of Higher Education and replaced it with a troika appointed by the governor.

The vote was 182,697 against and 61,007 in favor. The secretary of state did the math; that's 74.95 percent.

Opposition was strong statewide. The measure didn't carry in a single county.

But this year, cuts of up to 20 percent in existing college budgets have been greeted with silence. Budgets for the next biennium will be very tight, as well.

Again, silence.

Why should this be?

Here's some speculation:

First, there's hostility toward higher education in the Legislature. This has grown over time, and two years ago, it led to the attempt to abolish the board. Some lawmakers, at least, didn't appreciate being overridden by voters.

Leadership at the research universities also alienated lawmakers. At UND, the issue was the perceived mishandling of the nickname and logo issue; at North Dakota State University, it was the perceived arrogance of the president.

The board's own leadership has been unstable, with five chancellors in less than a decade. The incumbent, Mark Hagerott, has been on the job less than two years.

Then there is university sprawl.

Literally.

Almost all of the campuses have unused space, a legislative study during the last interim determined. The cost of maintaining the space was estimated at almost $87.5 million annually.

That doesn't include deferred maintenance. Officials at UND estimate it would cost $500 million to get its buildings up to standard. Instead, they've taken a dozen buildings off-line, and there's talk of demolishing some of them.

We haven't gotten to duplication in courses and entire programs.

These explanations fall back on the system.

Another line of speculation suggests a change in public attitudes toward education in general, and toward the research institutions especially. This might be partly the system's fault, too, given that the system has been advertising heavily for enrollment in the state's four two-year schools.

The larger issue, though, is the change in the economy. A couple of decades ago, a college degree was seen as a ticket to employment outside the state. Today there's work within the state, no ticket needed.

The political climate is different as well. In common with other states, North Dakota has seen a resurgence of populist sentiment. But unlike earlier populist movements here, this one has a decidedly conservative cast, viewing government as exploitive and taxpayers as victims.

Higher education often fares badly when populism takes over, and UND has often fared especially poorly. That could be because so many of the professionals employed across the state are graduates of the university's professional programs: lawyers, doctors, newspaper editors and others, who have in general been better off than many of the state's people, and who very often were political leaders and legislators. Today's political class is more managerial and less professional.

Earlier populist movements have arisen when the state was poor, sometimes desperately so. Certainly that was the case in the 1890s, when the governor vetoed the appropriation for UND. It was the case in the late 1910s, when the Nonpartisan League moved against higher education; and in the 1930s, when William Langer summarily fired faculty at the agricultural college, now NDSU.

And it was the case in the government-by-petition movement headed by Robert McCarney in the 1970s.

In 1895, Grand Forks business leaders collected money to keep UND operating. In the Teens, two separate boards of higher education met. The issue was finally resolved in the recall election of 1921, which drove the League from power.

In the 1930s, voters created the Board of Higher Education to prevent political interference on the campuses. And in the 1970s, the state Supreme Court ruled that McCarney couldn't refer the university budget because UND is a constitutional institution.

Today's attitude does seem quite different.

Last year's gubernatorial election raised the promise of real reform in higher education. In his successful campaign, Doug Burgum promised "reinvention" of government, including higher education.

We're getting something else, however. We're getting retrenchment.

All this, despite our wealth. The state has several billion dollars in trust funds. Those are hard to tap—but they're not impenetrable. In fact, lawmakers expect to use the earnings in the Legacy Fund to help meet costs in the coming biennium.

And they expect to have a balance of $100 million in cash at the end of the next budget cycle in 2019.

So what we're short of is not money.

Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Herald. Readers can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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