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Burgum makes pitch for revamped higher ed governance

Governor Doug Burgum

BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum again made his pitch for a multi-board structure to oversee the North Dakota University System Thursday, Jan. 3, an option he says could be done without requiring extra money.

“For North Dakota to remain competitive and to reach its fullest potential, we need robust and innovative institutions of higher education,” Burgum said during his State of the State Address.

“We need stronger governance boards with the appropriate capacity to focus on the very missions of our two-year, our four-year and our research institutions,” he said.

In 2018, Burgum’s Higher Education Task Force made a recommendation for a multi-board system of governance for higher education after nearly a year of discussion.

Under the recommended model, one board would govern the state's nine regional and community institutions while each of the state's two research universities would have its own governing board.

There would also be a committee to oversee the three boards.

The current State Board of Higher Education consists of eight voting members appointed by the governor, along with faculty and staff nonvoting advisers.

The recommendation was met with mixed response from legislators and higher education leaders.

The change would have to go to voters for approval, as it would amend the state’s Constitution.

Longtime model

Thursday, Burgum said the need for stronger governance is more prevalent than ever, especially as the university system has grown since the original board was formed in the 1930s.

“Our entire system had less than 8,000 students in it in 1938,” he said. “This one-board, eight-person model today is woefully ill-matched in terms of board bandwidth to address the complex governance challenges that are at hand at our 11 far-flung institutions that serve more than 45,000 students.”

Burgum called on those who have opposed the multi-board idea simply because it called for different boards to take a closer look at the proposal. He added that the K-12 system is still successful with boards for every school district in the state.

“I believe that this Legislature can come forward with a proposal that is better than something that was invented in 1938,” he said.

Burgum also said he was “confident” that the multi-board model could be achieved without extra spending, suggesting the model could be paid for with the realigning of resources at both the institutions and system offices.

“We can reinvent our way through this one,” Burgum said, noting that he would want to retain strengths of the current model such as common course numbering and credit transferring.

Appropriations would also remain with the Legislature, not the boards, Burgum added.

Sen. Ray Holberg, R-Grand Forks, said he would have to see the plan laid out first to see how it could be revenue-neutral.

“I’m one those that believe we owe it to the governor to make his case in front of the Legislature,” Holmberg said, noting that he wasn’t on the task force that made the recommendation.

“The question that the Legislature will wrestle with is, is it structure or is it the people that are running it? And there will be good and spirited discussion on that,” he said.

Holmberg said he believes there are some things on the current board structure that need to change, such as board terms.

The board previously had seven-year terms and members could not be reappointed to the board. Holmberg introduced an amendment that changed the board terms to a four-year term with a one-time reappointment.

“Looking back, I think it was a mistake and I take responsibility. I was prime sponsor of it,” he said.