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Commentary: Burgum task force breaks precedent with interest in higher ed

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks at the first meeting of the Fargo-Moorhead Flood Diversion Task Force on Monday, Oct. 23, at the Fargodome. Blake Gumprecht / The Forum

Gov. Doug Burgum announced that he'll name a task force to study higher education. That's the most important thing that happened in North Dakota politics since this column last appeared a fortnight ago.

The task force is a precedent breaker. No other governor has taken such a direct interest in higher education in more than 80 years. Bill Langer's interest was pretty much strictly personal. He fired some professors at the Ag College in Fargo, now NDSU. Actually Langer didn't do the deed himself. Members of his Board of Administration did what Langer told them to do.

Burgum appears to have bigger ambitions. His 15-member task force will have three goals: to identify "best practices for higher education governance;" to evaluate "whether the current system operates at its highest potential;" and to suggest "strategic governance improvements to the 2019 Legislature."

While Burgum praised the state's "robust system," it's pretty clear he has something more than cosmetics in mind. Exactly what isn't quite clear. An op-ed article he sent to the state's newspapers had the headline, "Task Force is about governance, not closing campuses." The text explained that the focus of the task force will not be "curriculum, teaching methods or campus footprints."

What is governance? It's about who makes the decisions, who shapes the future of the system, who makes the decisions about how money is spent, who hires those who administer the campuses and the system as a whole.

This hasn't been in doubt. The state Board of Higher Education does all of those things, but not always well. This frustrates politicians, especially legislators. Until now, governors have mostly stood aside, appointing board members but not trying to influence board decisions.

Changes in governance have been suggested previously. The most recent was in 2014, when voters rejected a three-member board that would serve at the governor's pleasure. Critics of higher education continue to demand "accountability," and that's the likely thrust of the governance task force.

Gov. Burgum has seized the initiative here, but it's important to remember that he and his task force can't change how higher education is governed in the state. The political response to Langer's meddling was a constitutional amendment creating a board that insulated the state colleges and universities from political interference. The Board of Higher Education effectively operates as a fourth branch of state government. This can be changed only by amending the

constitution. This can happen in two ways. The Legislature can pass amendments and submit them to voters, or citizens can initiate amendments. Voters make the decision.

The task force's recommendations will be only that.

Burgum's action presages a vigorous debate but it doesn't predict specific consequences. Of course, that's what makes the initiative so important. Likely, it will dominate political discussion at least through the 2019 legislative session and potentially through the 2020 election cycle.

The governor's task force won't be the only group focusing on higher education ahead of the 2019 Legislature. An interim committee is studying issues of access, affordability and achievement. Its mandate doesn't include looking at how the system is governed.

In other political news, we learned that Rep. Al Carlson will be a candidate for re-election. That's probably the second most important political development.

The Republican leader in the state House of Representatives, Carlson is known for a hard-driving, take-no- prisoners, never-compromise-until-you-have-to legislative style. His tenure has been marked by repeated disagreements with the state Senate, whose members generally take a more mellow approach.

Carlson won re-election in 2014, but a Democrat outpolled him to win the district's other seat, and the coming campaign will be strongly contested. If Carlson wins, he'll serve through the 2021 session. He may be challenged for the leadership position, since either moderate or more conservative members could gang up on him.

In the pending race for a U.S. Senate seat, little of consequence occurred.

The seat is held by Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat who won a narrow victory in 2012. She's proven to be a cagey politician by hedging her bets through strategic support of President Trump. On the Republican side, the two most likely candidates are competing as Trump sycophants. State Sen. Tom Campbell of Grafton promises to back the president instead of getting in his way; Congressman Kevin Cramer asserts that Trump wants him to be the candidate against Heitkamp.

This isn't the first time Cramer has suggested that Trump has big plans for him. He said he was on a short list for a Cabinet job. Trump passed him over — while flirting ostentatiously with Heitkamp.

Despite vigorous recruitment — reportedly including presidential suggestions — no other candidates have emerged. Perhaps that's because chances of defeating Heitkamp seem to be slim and shrinking. Or it may be that other potential candidates are waiting on developments, especially on tax reform. The drop-dead entry date is in mid-April, the filing deadline for the primary election.

Mike Jacobs is a retired editor and publisher of the Herald. Email him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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