BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum unveiled a task force to examine the governance structure of North Dakota's higher education system Tuesday, Nov. 7, a move he said was intended to ensure the state is keeping up with rapid workforce changes.
Burgum will chair the task force and appoint its 15 members, who will represent “the interests of students, faculty, the business community and all branches of state government,” according to a news release. The governor signed an executive order creating the group at the Capitol while flanked by legislators, State Board of Higher Education Chairman Don Morton, Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle and others.
“We’ve all got a vested interest in having a governance model that’s designed to meet these needs of this changing economy and the changing needs in our workforce,” Burgum said.
Burgum hopes to call the first meeting by mid-December. The task force will eventually produce recommendations for the Legislature to consider during the next regular session in 2019.
It’s unclear how extensive the potential changes may be, but Burgum said the recommendations “may end up touching on the need for” statutory or constitutional amendments. The first-term Republican said he’s coming into the process with an open mind.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he’s not looking for wholesale changes to the current system. He hopes to retain the relative autonomy higher education has now.
Burgum traced the current system’s structure to former Gov. William “Wild Bill” Langer’s attempt to fire seven North Dakota Agricultural College employees in 1937. A constitutional amendment, promoted as a way to prevent political meddling in higher education, was later approved by voters.
“We’ve had a similar model in place for 80 years,” Burgum said.
Burgum’s announcement came three years after North Dakota voters soundly rejected a proposal to replace the higher education board with a three-member, full-time commission appointed by the governor. Nearly 75 percent of the electorate sided against Measure 3 in 2014.
“Three years ago, that particular measure failed. That’s all that tells me,” Burgum said. “The world’s a different place than it was three years ago.”
The current State Board of Higher Education consists of eight part-time members appointed by the governor. The Council of College Faculties and staff senate each appoint one person to serve as an adviser who can participate in meetings but not vote, according to state law.
State law gives the higher education board “full authority” over the 11 institutions it controls. But state lawmakers also hold a significant amount of power through the budget-writing process. General fund appropriations for higher education dropped to $625.8 million in the current two-budget cycle, down from a high of $910.6 million in 2013-15.
Tensions between the higher education system and the Legislature have been a consistent theme in recent years, as has controversy surrounding University System chancellors. The board appoints the chancellor to serve as its chief executive.
The current chancellor, Mark Hagerott, has come under scrutiny for a staff survey that was critical of his leadership and described him as sexist. He denied the latter claim and said the document was released for political purposes.
The board bought out former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani’s contract in 2013, ending his brief but divisive tenure here. That came less than a decade after Robert Potts resigned as chancellor amid a dispute with Joseph Chapman, who was then the North Dakota State University president.
Burgum said the task force isn’t a response to any controversies in the higher education system.
“This is not really about the past, it’s about looking forward,” he said.
A North Dakota State University spokeswoman deferred comment to the University System.
House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said he hopes the process will be inclusive and that the governor has no preconceived notions about what he wants to accomplish.
“Hopefully whatever comes from this makes our higher education system (as) strong as it possibly can be,” he said.
Council of College Faculties President Debora Dragseth, a Dickinson State University professor, said they were unaware of the coming announcement until Monday evening, but the higher education board’s faculty adviser traveled from Fargo Tuesday morning and gave remarks during the event. She hopes faculty will have “significant representation” on the task force.
“I hope (Burgum) keeps an open mind to the people that have spent their careers and lives in education,” Dragseth said.
Task force member applications are due Nov. 30 and can be submitted through the governor’s website.