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UND President Mark Kennedy testifies in front of the House Appropriations Education and Environment Division about the priorities of the university on Tuesday, Jan. 15 in Bismarck. Sydney Mook / Forum News Service

Kennedy: North Dakota must prepare for future of education

BISMARCK -- Presenting to the House Appropriations Education and Environment Division Tuesday, Jan. 15, University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy said the university and the state need to work together to help prepare for the “new economy.”

“We do believe UND and North Dakota are at an inflection point between sinking and swimming,” Kennedy told the committee members.

The committee spent Tuesday listening to presentations from the North Dakota University System, UND, the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences and other institutions. Other schools, including North Dakota State University, will present Wednesday as legislators begin to piece together HB 1003, the state’s general fund bill.

As technology advances and more jobs become automated in the oil and agriculture industries, there will also be more jobs created in the “new economy,” Kennedy said. North Dakota is not well prepared for this “new economy,” Kennedy said, citing the national 2017 State New Economy Index prepared by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Kennedy added that North Dakota was ranked 38th in the 2017 index.

If people are slowly leaving North Dakota, Kennedy said it won’t be because the state lacks infrastructure but because North Dakota “did not prepare to capture new economy jobs that will replace primary sector jobs.”

To better prepare for the new economy, North Dakota needs to use the talent and knowledge at UND by investing in higher education and research that can propel the state forward, Kennedy said.

UND also needs to work with the state to provide high-quality education at a value, not a price, Kennedy said. He noted that campus enrollments are declining nationwide with competition from online universities and from alternative credentials.

In response to declining enrollments, the South Dakota Board of Regents recently approved giving in-state tuition to students from North Dakota, Wyoming, Iowa, Nebraska, Montana and Colorado.

The move, which is known as the South Dakota Advantage, has been discussed at length during recent State Board of Higher Education meetings as a potential threat to enrollment numbers across the state. However, Kennedy said there is much more to an education than a price point. Other factors like the economy and program quality are also key.

“We view this, at UND, as an act of desperation on the part of South Dakota that will not play well into the long-term future,” he said.

UND also needs to be able to provide education through a variety of means, including on-campus and online courses, Kennedy said. UND needs to invest in higher graduation rates, as well as attracting more talent to the school and more research to meet its goals to help North Dakota, he added.

System priorities

Despite a proposed $90 million bump in overall funding, the university system may still see cuts to its base budget this biennium.

Gov. Doug Burgum proposed a 5 percent cut to the higher education base budget. Although that is less than the 10-13 percent cuts the system was facing in mid-2018, NDUS’ funding would be lower than its 2015 level by nearly a third.

The system is asking that its funding from the 2017-19 biennium be restored, rather than asking for previous funding levels, NDUS vice chancellor Tammy Dolan said. NDUS is also asking legislators to consider 4 percent raises for the next two years, as universities have been unable to give pay increases over the past two years.

In his proposed budget, Burgum included a $112 million compensation package that would increase salaries for state employees over the next two years by 4 percent in the first year of the 2019-21 biennium and then 2 percent or up to 4 percent in the second year.

Since 2016, the university system as a whole has lost about 700 employees.

Jed Shivers, vice president for finance and operations at UND, noted that there are many “real faces” to the cuts to higher education over the past few years, including nearly 250 faculty, staff and student positions that were cut since 2016 at UND.

If a budget reduction were to be approved, Shivers said they could begin to have an impact on programs themselves as the university would likely go back and cut positions as a way to trim the budget.

“We sort of did everything we could clipping away at the margins, reducing positions,” he said. “But I think now we’d be getting into the meat of some of the programs if we sustain additional cuts.”