BISMARCK - Members of Fargo's business community went to bat for the state's two flagship universities Thursday, asking the Senate Appropriations Committee to fund the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University to levels requested by Gov. Jack Dalrymple.
Ultimately, they said, it's about jobs, even, as one said, in a seemingly blue-collar industry like oil extraction.
Their appeal had an air of urgency following a House vote last month for a lower funding level that left higher education officials in dismay.
Some House members had earlier suggested that higher education kept asking for too much while there are unmet infrastructure needs in the oil fields.
Jim Roers, the president of a Fargo-based property-development company that bears his name, said oil jobs require university training, too. "I can't tell you the pressure out there for employees of all different types," he said.
The developer was one of eight executives who signed a letter, sent to news media and lawmakers earlier this week, pleading for adequate funding for UND and NDSU, which they rank with agriculture and energy as the state's "real economic engines."
Some of the eight, joined by Don Morton, head of Microsoft's Fargo campus, spoke to the committee after officials from the universities made their case.
NDSU is seeking $135.2 million, 3.8 percent more than the governor requested, and UND $158.1 million, 0.8 percent more than Dalrymple's request.
UND's School of Medicine and Health Sciences, listed separately by state law, is seeking $50.1 million to run the school and $28.9 million to build an expansion.
UND President Bob Kelley and medical school dean Joshua Wynne told the committee that the money would allow the university to meet state needs such as more petroleum engineers and health care workers.
NDSU President Dean Bresciani told the committee that his university's funding is falling behind not just peers around the nation but with sister institutions in the state. In the current biennium, funding per student is the second-lowest in the state, at $4,500, he said.
UND, not including the medical school, is at $6,200. Minot State University is at $5,500.
Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, one of two vice chairmen, suggested the whole higher education funding model that emerged in the early 2000s may need to change.
"You have to have your head in the sand not to notice there's a lot of friction with higher education," he said. "We need to get back to square one and create a vision of where we're going in the next 10 years."
Not all Senate Appropriations members were sympathetic. Some western lawmakers were skeptical of the focus on the two eastern universities, especially after the Fargo executives spoke.
Vice Chairman Bill Bowman, R-Bowman, asked Roers why he wanted to focus the funding in the two eastern universities instead of spreading it out to smaller colleges, such as Williston State College, which is right in the middle of oil country.
Roers said UND and NDSU can crank out far more students per state dollar than the other institutions.
"If you put more money into the two universities, you get more people coming out the other end faster," he said.
Tu-Uyen Tran writes for the Grand Forks Herald.