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Port: The problems with higher ed lie in culture, not governance

PHOTO: Dakota Leadership PAC Anti-Measure 1 Mailer
This flyer, mailed to North Dakotans by the Dakota Leadership PAC, asks voters to oppose a constitutional amendment that would expand the size of the State Board of Higher Education and increase the length of its terms. The DLP is mostly funded by personal donations from Governor Doug Burgum (Photo by Rob Port)

MINOT, N.D. — For years, North Dakota State University has struggled with a chemistry building, Dunbar Hall, which has been in embarrassingly poor condition.

Back in 2014, the Associated Press was reporting that people who work in the building had to lug water because the pipes didn't work .

In June of 2017, fire inspectors found significant violations in the building .

In December of 2017, the building caught fire .

During the end of the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers debated a $51.2 million package to address the situation that included $3.2 million in fundraising.


Some Fargo-area lawmakers warned that raising that amount for a chemistry lab was unlikely.

"West Fargo Republican Rep. Michael Howe has warned that it wasn't feasible to raise that much money for a general education building," reporter John Hageman wrote at the time .

At the same time, NDSU was in the process of raising $37.2 million for a new football practice facility .

Startling, isn't it?

NDSU's fundraising base is happy to turn over tens of millions of dollars for a football facility, to be used by a tiny fraction of the students, but couldn't countenance a few million for a fire hazard science building.

At NDSU, like many other universities across the nation, football is the priority, and academic endeavors sit at the back of the bus.

I used to believe that the chronic problems in North Dakota's university system, issues related to fiscal profligacy and mediocre academic outcomes for students, had to do with the governance structure. Specifically, that the members of the State Board of Higher Education are not directly accountable to the people and spend much of their time rubber-stamping the self-serving ideas of university presidents and the networks of alumni and sports fans who back them.

This was a mistake.


That lack of accountability is a problem, and we do need to fix the governing board. Still, until the priorities for higher education among the public change, we aren't going to see things improve at the universities.

Which is why Gov. Doug Burgum is right to oppose Measure 1 on the November ballot.

He's aimed the resources of his mostly self-funded Dakota Leadership PAC at defeating the amendment.

You've probably received a mailer touting the proposal as "good for bureaucrats" and "bad for students." It's not a very nuanced argument, but it's apt enough.

Measure 1 is a pointless exercise. Placed on the ballot by the Legislature, it would expand the SBHE's membership from 8 to 15 and lengthen terms from four to six years.

To what end? Who knows.

It's telling that Burgum would oppose this — governors typically like the idea of appointing more people to public office, not less — and voters should oppose it too.

Measure 1 would create more government, with little evidence that doing so would make our state's universities serve us better.


To comment on this article, visit

Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

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