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McFeely: Burgum says ND has to 'recognize reality' in future of higher ed

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Mike McFeely, Oct. 17, 2015Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 3
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. Forum file photo.3 / 3

FARGO—Change is coming, and rapidly so, in higher education. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum sees his role as "sounding the alarm bell" for the state's colleges and universities so they are best positioned to deal with the future.

That was one of the messages the governor stressed Friday, May 19, during an interview on my radio show on 970 WDAY. Burgum has talked often about higher education in recent weeks, sparking criticism from some (including me) as he minimized the importance of college campuses and referred to local campuses as state-subsidized job creation.

Burgum painted a much broader and deeper picture on the radio, saying that two unstoppable national forces ensure North Dakota's higher ed system will have to change or get left behind—the student loan bubble and technology. He believes the model of low-interest, easy-to-get student loans that has provided "artificial monetary stimulus" to higher ed will come to a screeching halt, in part because of the nearly $1.3 trillion in debt facing students. Combine that with rapidly advancing technology that is subverting the traditional university model of traveling to a location to learn, and Burgum sees inevitable changes.

"Those two things have nothing to do with my vision, nothing to do with my policies," he said. "It's just a reality of the marketplace. Those forces are so large they are going to affect every college in the country."

Burgum said he's not criticizing educators, administrators, individual schools or those passionate about higher education in North Dakota. Nor does he believe campuses are going to disappear. But he believes the whole idea of education is shifting, in some cases to lifelong learning to help employees keep their skills current with fast-changing technology.

"The concept of a campus experience that lasts four years—you come in, you pay a lot of money, you leave with all this debt—that model is under threat. That's part of what I am saying," Burgum said. "We just have to recognize reality and we have to respond to that with innovation."

North Dakota higher education is no longer only in competition with neighboring states, or with each other, for students. Now, online sites offer free basic college courses from places with "better brands" such as Stanford, the University of Michigan, Penn and Johns Hopkins.

"The role I'm playing in some ways is to sound the alarm bell that change and transformation and reinvention is essential," Burgum said. "I'm absolutely counting on, just like in the private sector, the best ideas in what we become in higher education have to come from the teachers, the students, the schools themselves."

But Burgum is skeptical those involved in higher ed will embrace change, saying "there are a lot of forces that insulate them," like tenure and faculty organizations.

"So instead of having all the elements that allow a campus to be highly nimble and highly flexible, they are actually set up to resist change," Burgum said. "Being an organization that resists change at a time of rapid change, that's not a good spot to be."

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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