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Zaleski: Put Legacy Fund to work

Columnist Jack Zaleski writes, "The Legislature, with its sometimes clumsy hands on the purse strings, should step up and appropriate the money necessary to avoid draconian cuts at NDSU and elsewhere."

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InForum columnist Jack Zaleski is the former editor of The Forum's editorial page.
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Am I hearing this right? The new president of North Dakota State University is preparing to meat-ax his way through the school’s budget because of an anticipated funding shortfall of $10.5 million. David Cook said the budget cuts could mean loss of academic and athletic programs, mergers of colleges and departments, and elimination of some majors and programs . In other words, a significant diminution of what a university is supposed to be.

The reasons Cook cited for the drastic action are declining enrollment and a subsequent slide in revenue from tuition and fees. Thus, students who are enrolled at NDSU will be forced into a less comprehensive academic environment because their numbers are down. The opportunities and possibly the quality of their college studies will be diminished simply because there are fewer students on campus than there were a few years ago. To put it more directly, they will get less of a bang for their buck. They will be cheated out of the diversity of educational options they were promised.

Am I hearing this right? North Dakota’s Legacy Fund is approaching $8 billion in value. That’s “billion” with a “b.” Until last year, earnings have been spectacular. The fund, which is fed by a portion of the state’s oil tax, saw its earnings off slightly because of the decline in crude oil prices early in the COVID pandemic. But over the life of the fund, it has performed above projections.

The Legacy Fund is one of some 40 distinct funds that are stuffed to capacity – many of them dedicated for specific purposes, but others that have wiggle room in how the wealth is distributed. The state is not broke. Indeed, it’s flush with cash reserves, the Legacy Fund being the most high-profile example. (And let us not forget the billions the state collected from Uncle Sam from COVID relief funding and the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill.)

Yet, NDSU (and other campuses, no doubt) is taking a budget hit because tuition revenues are down. The school’s fixed costs are not down. The cost of hiring and retaining the best faculty and staff is not down. The responsibility to provide students – no matter how many – with a return for their investment is still the mandate.

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There is a faction in the Legislature that has never been friendly to higher education. As I wrote a few years ago, some legislators believe higher education is the second floor of the high school in their hometowns. The Legislature, with its sometimes clumsy hands on the purse strings, should step up and appropriate the money necessary to avoid draconian cuts at NDSU and elsewhere. The dollars are there – just sitting there earning money in the Legacy Fund and other buckets. Put it to work where the state’s future lies: in higher education.

Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He is the author of a new history of Forum Communications Company . Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521 or 701-566-3576.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

READ MORE FROM JACK ZALESKI
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Opinion by Jack Zaleski
Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He is author of a new history of Forum Communications Co. Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521 or 701-566-3576.
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