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Double vision: Burgum, Bresciani present starkly different views of higher education

Gov. Doug Burgum presents his vision of challenges and opportunities facing the North Dakota University System in the face of technological disruptions. He spoke to an interim legislative committee meeting at North Dakota State University on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. Patrick Springer / Forum News Service

FARGO—You might call it a clash of ideas pitting traditional brick-and-mortar campuses against an increasingly digital world.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani hold vastly different visions of the future of higher education in a time of head-spinning technological transformation.

Both leaders presented their views Thursday, Nov. 2, during a meeting of an interim legislative committee that is studying the North Dakota University System.

Burgum, reiterating a message he has delivered before, said traditional universities are increasingly under threat because of new modes of "knowledge transfer" enabled by advancing technology.

As a result, colleges and universities that fail to adapt could find their economic foundation crumbling as students and other constituencies—notably employers—flock to more attractive and efficient ways of learning and career preparation, including large online courses, some of which are free.

"We're in a world today where knowledge transfer can occur anytime, anyplace, on any device," said Burgum, a former software executive and technology entrepreneur. Meanwhile, he added, more people are questioning the worth of a college education, and interest in certificate programs is growing, threatening to undermine the traditional higher education model.

"That cultural shift is happening," Burgum said. Employers want qualified applicants, he said, not credentials.

As a result of those changes, he added, colleges could find competitors, including large online course providers, stealing their "profit centers," notably large lecture classes with low costs that bring in lots of tuition. He conceded, however, that some experiences, such as lab classes, are less likely to move online.

But Bresciani, whose presentation to the legislative panel immediately followed the governor's, outlined a strategic vision for NDSU that focuses on students wanting a traditional, four-year experience at an affordable, competitive research university.

NDSU is part of a diverse state higher education system with 11 campuses, each filling a distinct role and catering to different pools of students, Bresciani said. Some campuses, including the University of North Dakota, have placed a higher priority on providing online instruction.

Since he took the helm in 2010, Bresciani has become more selective in admissions, rejecting students who are not well prepared and unlikely to find success. As a result, he said, NDSU's retention and graduation rates are increasing along with students' grade-point averages.

"We're not an institution for all students," he said. Later, he added, "We're marketing ourselves to a very specific kind of student," many pursuing degrees in so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Bresciani said his belief in a traditional model of higher education is the result of spending 35 years in the field, at nine universities spanning the coasts and Midwest. Throughout his career, he said, people have been prognosticating the end of traditional higher education.

"Thirty-five years later, there are more people enrolled in traditional higher education than ever before," he said.

There really is no substitute for a teacher and a classroom, meeting face to face, immersed in discussion, Bresciani said. "It's hard to exchange ideas online."

Rewarding performance

Members of the North Dakota Legislature's Higher Education Committee also heard ideas about how the university system's funding formula could go further in rewarding performance.

Already, under a change made several years ago, campuses only receive revenue under the formula for students who successfully complete their courses. Further steps could include rewarding improved graduation and retention rates as well as for enhanced enrollment of adult learners, minority students and other at-risk groups.

Another approach under discussion would include work-force targets, such as an increase in the number of certificates or degrees awarded in high-demand jobs in North Dakota, with higher weights for those in greatest demand.

Don Morton, a retired Microsoft executive and chairman of the State Board of Higher Education, who attended the legislative meeting, credited Burgum with a thought-provoking presentation that should spur debate.

"He's a very visionary guy, a very bright guy," Morton said. He agrees that technology presents both challenges and opportunities. "New technology grows exponentially and after awhile it just explodes," he said.

Birgit Pruess, faculty adviser to the State Board of Higher Education and a professor of microbiology at NDSU, asked that faculty have a seat at the table in the discussions. There is a perception that faculty are resistant to change, she said, but they are navigating significant change.

"I agree with many of the things he said," Pruess said, referring to Burgum. "Maybe we can come up with a hybrid system that accommodates all the needs."

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to

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