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North Dakota student leaders, others concerned with amendments to Challenge Grant bill

The change has caused concern among some student groups, like the North Dakota Student Association, which represents students from across the state on legislative and other issues in the North

Gracie Lian.jpg
Gracie Lian
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GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota Challenge Fund grants have been a popular piece of legislation since the program was first started more than five years ago, but the attachment of two floor amendments – especially one that would keep funds from institutions that partner with organizations that perform abortions – is causing frustration among some students and higher-ed leaders.

The Challenge Fund program was started during the 2013-15 biennium, leveraging private dollars by promising a partial state match. The state provides $1 of state money for every $2 of private donations within a per-campus limit, with the money going to student scholarships, endowed faculty chairs and educational infrastructure.

The program has been popular among higher-ed institutions in the state, with most schools running out of their allotted dollars each biennium.

Legislation for the program, Senate Bill 2030, last month was amended to include funding for two private institutions in the state as well as a section that would keep funds from universities and colleges that partner with organizations that perform abortions. The bill would give $20 million in funding to schools across the state.

The bill passed the Senate by a 29-18 vote and is now before the House.

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The amendment dealing with organizations that perform abortions was passed by a verification vote, meaning only the lieutenant governor, as the leader of the Senate, knows who voted for and against the amendment.

The change has caused concern among some student groups, including the North Dakota Student Association, which represents students from across the state on legislative and other issues in the North Dakota University System.

"Turning higher education political is so dangerous to affecting the education of students,” NDSA President Gracie Lian, of Grand Forks, said. “I think that one of the biggest things that higher education provides is critical thinking, the ability to explore different ideas and form different viewpoints as well as be exposed to different viewpoints. And as soon as you tie political funding to something or you start instituting more political policies, that freedom gets challenged.”

Lian, a student at UND, said the NDSA can’t support the legislation as it’s currently written. The student association, which is made up of representatives of all 11 public schools in the state, passed a resolution last month opposing the bill in its current form.

“Using higher education as a pawn to further any political agenda, I think all students vehemently oppose,” Lian said.

She added that there are students involved in NDSA that are very pro-life and very pro-choice, but both sides feel that a bill to support student scholarships is not the place to have that debate.

“It's not the right way to approach policy change,” she said.

During the Senate floor debate about the bill, an amendment also was attached that would give University of Mary, based in Bismarck, and the University of Jamestown access to the program. The schools would only have access to the program for student scholarships. That amendment was originally rejected by the Senate Appropriations Committee, but later passed the Senate floor by a narrow margin, 24-23.

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Higher education leaders in the North Dakota University System have expressed their concerns about the changes. Tammy Dolan, the system’s chief financial officer who often testifies about the impact of legislation on the NDUS, said the system is opposed to the two amendments because the changes could impact academic and research freedom for campuses.

During a recent State Board of Higher Education meeting, Dolan said the system office will be testifying in opposition to those sections of the bill, and developing a strategy involving the institution presidents – and potentially faculty members, board members and others. The idea is to have "a strategic presence and strategic direction when that hearing is held,” she said.

Liz Legerski, who represents faculty members on the board, also has expressed concern about the changes made to the bill. She called the original legislation, without the new amendments, "non-political and nonpartisan" and "just a great bill for students.

The bill has yet to receive a hearing date as of Tuesday, March 9.

Sydney Mook has been the managing editor at the Herald since April 2021. In her role she edits and assigns stories and helps reporters develop their work for readers.

Mook has been with the Herald since May 2018 and was first hired as the Herald's higher education reporter where she covered UND and other happenings in state higher education. She was later promoted to community editor in 2019.


For story pitches contact her at smook@gfherald.com or call her at 701-780-1134.
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