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Kathleen Neset

ND State Board of Higher Education considers revamped structure

BISMARCK- As Gov. Doug Burgum continues to push his plans for a revamped, three-board governance system for higher education, the State Board of Higher Education is taking steps of its own to consider campus needs through new committees.

The SBHE Governance Committee recommended that three additional committees be created under the State Board, including a committee for community and polytechnic colleges, one for regional or dual-mission institutions and one for the research universities.

The proposed changes are in line with recommendations made by Burgum’s Higher Education Task Force last year, but could be done within the board without legislative or voter approval.

Currently there are multiple subcommittees under the SBHE: budget and finance, audit, academic and student affairs and governance. Multiple board members also sit on the challenge grant fund review committee.

To support the adjustment and possibly increased workload, the governance committee also recommended that the SBHE be expanded to at least 12 members. Expansion of the board would require support and action of the governor, Legislature and, eventually, the voters.

Of the 12 board members, nine members could be divided across the three tier committees, but three members (the chair, vice chair and audit chair) would not serve on a tier committee.

“This is just the beginning of looking at what do we need to do to improve how we deal with the different campuses,” said Casey Ryan, who serves as the chair of the governance committee and is a SBHE member.

Board member Kathleen Neset said she believes there is “reform” that needs to be done within the board, but that doesn’t necessarily mean completely reforming higher education in North Dakota.

“The higher education system continues to evolve and change rapidly,” Neset said. “In order for us to stay nimble and quick enough and in order for us to stay relevant, we really have to stay up to those standards.”

The board needs to start laying the groundwork for changes now, rather than waiting for approval from the governor, Legislature or voters, which could take years. Waiting three to six years is an “eternity,” Neset said, adding the board needs to start considering making changes within three to six months.

“We do not have the luxury of waiting for two years of legislative action and the processes to go through a public referendum,” she said. “The last time we had a public referendum on the board of higher education, I believe the public was 74 percent-plus in favor of maintaining this structure.”

Board Chair Don Morton suggested the tiered committees could also include expertise from leaders from each campus. The campus leaders would not be voting members.

Board members indicated that discussions about the topic would likely be ongoing and may continue through the board’s annual retreat in June.

Other business

The board approved a first reading for a revised University of North Dakota proposal for an $80 million capital project meant to address deferred maintenance.

The project would be funded with North Dakota Building Authority bonds, which would be paid back with institutional operating funds. The debt service is estimated to be around $5.3 million a year for 25 years.

The project would focus on specific core academic buildings, including Merrifield Hall and Twamley Hall.

The matter would also have to be approved by the Legislature.

“If they don’t do something, the problem gets worse, and frankly. it continues to get more expensive by the year,” board vice chair Nick Hacker said.

Neset said that while she is willing to support the project, the board should recognize that the bonding brings “increased risk” due to the method of funding.

“It’s not conventional. It’s more creative,” she said. “But I commend the committee for their work on this, and I’ll support it.”

UND submitted a similar proposal at the end of 2018, but the bond would have been repaid with money from tuition increases. The proposal was rejected.