BISMARCK — Higher education leaders in North Dakota plan to split policy on avoiding the appearance of schools and their employees and students supporting political candidates and measures into two parts, and students will have to wait some time before their part of the proposal is finished.
The State Board of Higher Education Governance Committee gave preliminary approval on Wednesday, Nov. 20, to a political activities policy that revises a 1984 policy. The revisions explain prohibited activity for faculty, staff, SBHE members and other employees but also lay out protections for North Dakota University System employees while they are off duty.
Committee members discussed the proposed changes at a previous meeting but decided to table it until they could gather input from students. Speaking to students was very helpful, NDUS attorney Eric Olson said, but he added it made staff realize the policy should be split into parts.
The proposal from Wednesday’s meeting focuses on NDUS employees and SBHE members, Olson said. A second policy for students will be developed over the next several months, he said.
A University of North Dakota hockey game during the Frozen Four tournament in 2016 prompted the change, according to NDUS Compliance Officer Karol Riedman.
The UND Fighting Hawks won the NCAA championship in April 2016, just months before the primary and general elections for the North Dakota gubernatorial race.
Numerous North Dakota officials and several candidates were in Tampa Bay to celebrate the win, and some took pictures with the team, Riedman said.
But Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who was running for governor in 2016, wasn’t there, she said. In what she called an innocent idea, someone suggested cheerleaders take a photo with a Stenehjem for governor shirt, Riedman said. That photo was posted on social media, she said.
“Then we got a complaint about making it look like UND and the team were supporting a certain candidate over another,” she said.
With 59% of the vote, Fargo businessman Doug Burgum defeated Stenehjem in the 2016 primary election on the Republican ticket for governor, despite the latter receiving the GOP endorsement. Paul Sorum of Fargo also was in the race but received 2% of the primary election vote.
Burgum got nearly 77% of the general election vote, defeating state Rep. Marvin Nelson, a Democrat from Rolla, N.D., who was unchallenged in the primary election and who received 20% of the vote in the general election.
Burgum also defeated Marty Riske, a Libertarian from Fargo who got 4% of the general election vote.
Reidman said the current policy regarding higher education officials and potential political endorsement doesn’t provide guidance on the situation.
Olson said NDUS officials would like to see the policy updated before the 2020 election.
The SBHE will review the policy at a future meeting before deciding whether to approve it.