There’s an old saying that holds a lot of wisdom: “Two heads are better than one.” We make better decisions when we bring more decision-makers to the table, each with a unique background and perspective. That’s true for families. It’s true for businesses. And it’s certainly true for governing bodies.
The North Dakota University System finds itself confronting a world that’s becoming increasingly challenging. New competition for post-secondary education is coming from all quarters in a world with increasing online learning options. Colleges and universities must react with increasing agility to the changing demands of students and needs of an ever-evolving workforce. And predicted demographic changes pose recruiting and enrollment challenges that will only exacerbate those daunting challenges.
We strongly support the proposal to create two higher education governing boards in North Dakota: one to oversee the two flagship research universities, North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota, and the other two direct the remaining nine state campuses of higher learning.
Better governance is crucial for our public colleges and universities to perform at their best in a world that’s increasingly complex. Two boards, each more attuned to the needs and roles of the campuses they oversee, would better steer these important institutions.
Given the very different missions and roles of the two universities and the campuses, a mix of two-year and four-year institutions, it’s logical to have a separate board guiding each. UND and NDSU, each with diverse research initiatives and graduate programs including law, medicine, engineering and business, are very different than the other campuses.
Another key point: Having one board to oversee NDSU and UND will help to foster better coordination and increased cooperation between the two campuses, located an hour’s drive apart along the Interstate 29 corridor.
These two universities hold a unique position in the higher education system, as reflected by the support in Bismarck to come up with significant state support for research to spur business development and jobs.
The idea of increasing the number of higher education boards was first put forward by a task force assembled by Gov. Doug Burgum. The task force recommended three boards: one each for the two flagship universities, and one for the rest. Legislators modified that proposal, whittling down the number of boards from three to two.
So far, legislators have not warmed to the idea of adding a second board of higher education. We understand: change is hard.
The last major change in higher education governance in North Dakota came in 1938, when voters amended the state Constitution after a crisis at what then was the North Dakota Agricultural College, now NDSU. Then-Gov. Bill Langer fired the president and many faculty, resulting in the college’s loss of accreditation.
That resulted in the creation of the State Board of Higher Education, which has served the state well. But a lot has changed in the eight decades since. Ultimately, this is an issue that voters will decide, since it would require a constitutional amendment.
We urge legislators to reconsider and place a two-board proposed constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot. Failing that, Burgum should organize a drive to do so. Enlarging the current board, as legislators now are considering, would not fundamentally improve university governance. It would only be trifling on the margins. That idea should be discarded. When it comes to higher education governance, two boards are better than one.