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Editorial: Two-board path is right way forward

In November we wrote about “a board too far,” playing off “A Bridge Too Far,” a book and later a movie about Allied efforts in Holland during World War II. That editorial came after a task force convened by Gov. Doug Burgum suggested a new approach to governance of the state’s university system.

The task force proposed three separate boards: one to oversee the University of North Dakota, one to oversee North Dakota State University and one to oversee the remaining nine institutions. The proposal differs greatly from the current system, which is overseen by the State Board of Higher Education.

The idea for three boards came from a goal of seeking balance. For example, UND and NDSU have similar enrollments of approximately 13,800; the other universities combined have about 18,000 students. The idea is that each board would carry relatively equal weight and could therefore equally receive attention and seek funding.

In November, we opined that three boards is one too many. Two seems better.

That’s why we’re glad to see a proposal floated in the Legislature to push for a two-board system. According to a report by Forum News Service, state Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, R-Fargo, expected to introduce an amendment seeking to create just two boards. Roers Jones believes a two-board system will have a better chance in the Legislature.

We agree — both that a two-board system is better, and also that a two-board system is more palatable to the Legislature and residents of the state. Both bodies matter, because the Legislature must first give its approval; if that happens, the state’s voters would have the final say, since the current board system is written in the North Dakota Constitution.

Creating two boards makes sense. UND and NDSU not only are related by size, but by scope and mission. Each has unique specialties — law and medical at UND; architecture and pharmacy at NDSU, for instance — that separate them from their smaller counterparts.

A more contemporary commonality, however, is research. The presidents of both universities have worked together over the past year to convince the rest of the state about the research capabilities at UND and NDSU. Their concerted work has grabbed headlines and further convinced us that a board jointly overseeing both research universities is a better approach than separate boards to oversee each.

Creating separate boards would nudge the research universities apart just as they are coming together for that greater statewide cause — research. Restricting collaboration is not ideal because North Dakota’s research universities are competing nationally. That’s a common bond that must be considered in any discussion about innovation and future governance.

A two-board system also maintains the spirit of Burgum’s vision, which is to reinvent government in the state. That’s a wise approach and deserves strong consideration. He prefers the three-board idea, but he would back a two-board proposal.

The vision of the governor and the amendment proposed by Roers Jones is the way to move forward.

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