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Editorial: Governance of ND university system due for a good, hard look

If there were any doubts that Gov. Doug Burgum wants to shake things up in Bismarck, those doubts were erased with his announcement that he will assemble a task force to examine the governance structure of the North Dakota University System. Governance of the state's 11 colleges and universities has been a contentious issue for years, with legislators repeatedly arguing that the higher education system is not efficient enough and not fully accountable. In making his announcement, Burgum noted that the State Board of Higher Education, which runs the university system, has been around for 80 years. How many 80-year-old structures can't stand some fixing up or even remodeling?

But the origin of the State Board of Higher Education offers a cautionary tale. The board was famously created to protect the colleges and universities from political meddling. That's precisely what happened when Gov. William "Wild Bill" Langer fired a bunch of faculty in 1937 at what then was the North Dakota Agricultural College, now North Dakota State University. Many believe the governor had his eyes on federal money distributed through the college to agriculture extension and experiment station operations around the state. It's an important reminder of the very real harm that can come from failing to insulate higher learning from political hacks.

Burgum says his motivation comes from scanning the horizon and considering the array of forces, including technological and societal changes, that pose growing challenges to higher education. He points to rising tuition costs and the resulting mountain of student loan debt saddling graduates, stressors that will drive change. Another major threat Burgum cites is the cultural shift under way in which students and employers are less interested in credential and more interested in marketable skills. The ivy-covered campus that once seemed impervious to change is facing significant threats.

The governor's argument is that an effective governing structure is essential to position North Dakota's colleges and universities, so integral to the state's success, to deal effectively with the forces of change. Although he's a proponent of greater use of online instruction, he concedes that there always will be a role for the traditional classroom. Regardless of delivery mechanism, the state's higher education system must be able to compete. "Competition can come from anywhere," Burgum says.

Higher education governance requires careful balancing. There is a longstanding tension between the demand that each campus be nimble and responsive to changing needs. On the other hand, there are sometimes conflicting demands, especially from legislators, that each college and university's role fits well with the system. Many believe the system has become unwieldy and too bureaucratic. After eight decades, it's certainly worth a good, hard look.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.