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McFeely: Poll shows unabashed love for NDSU, UND — despite nonstop bashing of both

North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani, left, and University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy meet with The Forum Editorial Board to make the case for more legislative funding for research Wednesday, Sept. 12, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

You'd think, given the headlines out of Bismarck and the braying of self-appointed experts trying to save the world from the evil liberalism of college campuses, that the citizens of North Dakota would've had it up to here with higher education in the state. And by "here," we're talking about the tip of some pointy-headed professor's head or the ceiling of one of those safe spaces these snowflake college kids need these days.

If a media story isn't about somebody calling for North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani's head on a pike -- heck, this newspaper's editorial page called for that a few years ago -- then it's about a Grand Forks legislator chopping University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy at the knees because Kennedy had the audacity to speak honestly about higher ed funding.

And let us not forget the never-ending narrative that the higher ed system is broken and needs immediate and serious repair, lest NDSU get too big for its britches. Nor the nonstop talk coming from Gov. Innovation's office that the state's universities need to move online or they risk being left behind as kids from Cooperstown and Carrington take classes from UCLA from their mothers' basements.

Higher education is a disaster! The people are mad as hell and they're not going to take this anymore! The pitchforks and torches are at the gates of UND and NDSU as we speak!

Or not.

Would it surprise you to know that taxpaying North Dakotans, almost regardless of their background or where they live, love NDSU and UND?

That information comes via polling by DFM Research, a Twin Cities firm that's spent time in North Dakota in recent years doing surveys for political parties, campaigns and other organizations. Dean Mitchell is DFM's owner, known in political circles for being the only pollster to correctly forecast Democrat Heidi Heitkamp's upset victory over Rick Berg in the 2012 U.S. Senate race, and he recently made a Twitter post sharing the favorability and unfavorability numbers for NDSU and UND.

NDSU is viewed favorably by 84 percent of the state's population.

UND is viewed favorably by 80 percent of the state's population.

There isn't a politician who wouldn't kill for these numbers.

Mitchell polled the state Aug. 13-16, 2018, gathering data for the U.S. Senate race between Heitkamp and Kevin Cramer. And he decided, just for fun, to throw in a couple of questions about North Dakota's biggest universities.

"I always throw in a couple of questions at the beginning as ice-breakers. You don't want to jump right in to what you really want to ask about. No pollster is going to do that," Mitchell said. "So you're looking for something fun to ask about, you throw in something odd. I came up with NDSU and UND. I had no idea what people would think and 'voila,' there were the numbers. People in North Dakota like their universities."

The exact question was: "I'm now going to read you some names of public figures and names in the news. For each one, please tell me if you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion, and if you've never heard of them before, just let me know."

NDSU was viewed as very favorable by 52 percent of respondents and somewhat favorable by 32 percent. It was seen as somewhat unfavorable by 4 percent and very unfavorable by 3 percent. Nine percent were neutral and 1 percent said they'd never heard of NDSU.

UND was viewed as very favorable by 44 percent of respondents and somewhat favorable by 36 percent. Seven percent saw UND as somewhat unfavorable and 3 percent said very unfavorable. Ten percent were neutral and 1 percent said they'd never heard of UND.

The poll was conducted with 400 North Dakota residents and has a margin of error of 4.9 percent, typical for a poll like this.

Remember, before you start harping about Bison or Fighting Hawks fans skewing the poll, Mitchell asked every person about both schools and eight of 10 people had favorable opinions of both. That's remarkable in a state that is allegedly identified along UND or NDSU lines, and in a state where higher ed is continually bashed in the public forum.

But wait, there's more. In separate polling done this year, Mitchell asked North Dakota residents their opinion of higher ed faculty and staff. Seventy-two percent viewed faculty and staff favorably while 13 percent saw them unfavorably. The rest had a neutral opinion.

That makes higher ed faculty more popular than every office-holder in the state, with the possible exception of U.S. Sen. John Hoeven.

Favorability of NDSU and UND cut across every demographic in the poll. Men, women, age, education level, region, political party identification. They all see the schools in a positive light.

Exactly 80 percent of people with no college degree view NDSU favorably. Eighty-one percent who identify as a Democrat have a favorable opinion of UND. The same number who say they're Republicans see NDSU favorably. The consistency of how positively residents see the schools is remarkable.

"Every college president everywhere says it, but there's a belief that athletics are the 'front porch' of a university. I have to believe that's in play here. I don't know that, because I didn't get into the weeds that much," Mitchell said. "But you have to think that the success of the NDSU football team and the UND hockey team plays into people's perceptions, right? Even people with no college degree overwhelmingly see the schools in a favorable light. Why would that be? Maybe because they know about the football and hockey teams."

It doesn't really matter. The bottom line is North Dakotans love their biggest universities, despite years of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing at the state's highest levels. It's almost as if the gloom and doom is a product of ultra right-wingers and the media, and doesn't accurately reflect the state's voters. Perhaps the state's power brokers should take note.

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