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COMMENTARY: Build a better board of higher ed

GRAND FORKS — A task force will study governance of higher education in North Dakota, the governor says. Applications for membership are due Thursday, Nov. 30.

I'm not applying, but I do have one straightforward suggestion. Get rid of the residency requirement for members of the Board of Higher Education.

Here's my case:

The first premise is that governance has two components, structure and personnel, and structure isn't the problem. Nearly half of states govern their public colleges and universities with structure similar to our own, an independent board that doesn't answer directly to political figures. This has special resonance in North Dakota because a long time ago a governor fired faculty members at the ag college, now NDSU. The structure has prevented that sort of thing for 78 years, roughly two thirds of the state's history.

My second premise is that the state's higher education system is larger and more complex than most North Dakotans realize. If all the students enrolled in the state's colleges and universities were on just one campus, it would be among the 15 largest in the nation. Few enterprises in the state are as large as that, and few, if any, are as complex, with a central office and 11 branches offering thousands of programs to 45,000 students.

My third premise is that the system is an outstanding success that is underappreciated in the state but widely regarded around the nation. Still, in many ways the system functions poorly, with unfocused missions on many of its campuses, duplication among campuses, lack of coordination between them, overbuilding in some places, deferred maintenance almost everywhere and far too many truculent and uncooperative administrators.

These problems owe nothing to structure and everything to decision making. Decision making is a human undertaking. It's the function of the Board of Higher Education, the very board that arose in response to an earlier problem in governance.

Board members are recommended by a screening committee, appointed by the governor, approved by the state Senate and removable only by impeachment.

In the eight-decades-long life of the board, scores of individuals have served honorably — against two big handicaps: local pressure and ambitious administrators.

Too often, board members have caved. The reason is not hard to understand.

It's a small state with a political culture of openness and freewheeling debate. Members are as likely to be challenged for their actions by neighbors as they might be by their own consciences.

The state constitution requires a board of eight members, one a student and the others "qualified electors and taxpayers of the state." That's a total of perhaps half a million people, very few of whom have any experience in such a big, complex undertaking. That's not a deep talent pool.

Yet North Dakota has produced more than its share of leaders in business, education, government and the military — people who have built or managed big organizations with multiple operating units and thousands of employees, people who develop long-term strategies, oversee large budgets and make critical personnel decisions, hiring as well as firing.

Many of these people are passionately committed to North Dakota, even though they don't live here. Likely many of them would be eager to tackle the challenges that higher education presents in "the old home state." Such individuals need not be a majority of the board, but they ought to be more than just advisers. Their talent and their opinions ought to count.

Enlarging the pool of people eligible to serve on the board would require amending the state constitution, not an easy undertaking. Neither the governor nor the Legislature can do it alone. Lawmakers can propose amendments. Citizens can initiate amendments. Voters have the final say.

North Dakotans have turned down changes to the higher education system in previous critical elections, but elections results are history, not precedent.

This change would keep the structural component of governance, ensuring the independence of the higher education system, a critical priority as higher education enters a period of innovation and change.

No other governor since Bill Langer has taken an intimate interest in the state's colleges and universities. Doug Burgum promised re-invention in his campaign for the governorship, and he won handily.

His interest in higher education is appropriate. The relative indifference of some previous governors helped to diminish the prestige of service on the board; some governors made their choices from among political loyalists, thus shrinking the talent pool even more.

Task force members will find duplication of programs, empty classrooms, outdated equipment, opportunities for innovation and cooperation. Many of these issues can be addressed within the existing governance. The structure is sound.

We need to improve the other part of governance, the decision making part. Expanding eligibility for the board — the personnel part of governance — would be a good start.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald. He writes about state politics, education and history.