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As task force prepares to wrap, Burgum and Morton signal support for major higher ed changes

Gov. Doug Burgum listens during the first meeting of the Task Force for Higher Education Governance Friday, Jan. 12, 2018 at Bismarck State College. North Dakota Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, left, and Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle smile in the background. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum and State Board of Higher Education Chairman Don Morton have signaled support for splitting North Dakota's higher education governance into multiple boards, a significant change that would require a constitutional amendment.

Burgum chairs a task force examining the structure of higher education in North Dakota, and Morton is a member. The panel, which doesn't have the power to enact changes itself, is wrapping up its work in hopes of issuing a report with recommendations ahead of the 2019 legislative session, which begins in January.

The current State Board of Higher Education consists of eight voting members appointed by the governor to oversee the North Dakota University System's 11 public colleges and universities, and it appoints a chancellor to serve as its chief executive. Faculty and staff also have non-voting advisers on the board.

In an interview Friday, Oct. 5, Burgum said multiple boards could better focus on the missions of differing campuses and respond to "external dynamics" like rapidly changing technology. But he advocated for preserving aspects of the current model, such as common course numbering and allowing students to easily transfer credits between institutions.

"As long as we can ensure that the system benefits that we are experiencing today (remain) ... I think we can pick up some extra empowerment and better educational outcomes if we considered the multi-board options," Burgum said.

Morton said the "multiple board approach is the best way to go," with his personal preference being a four-board structure that installs a panel for each of the research universities, one for the regional universities and another for the community colleges.

Burgum said he's undecided on how many boards he prefers.

A consultant report presented to task force members includes options for a "coordinating board" or higher education administrator overseeing the multiple panels, although their authority and duties were undetermined.

But there appears to be some apprehension among other task force members about pursuing such a change.

State Sen. Joan Heckaman, a Democrat from New Rockford who's a member of the task force, suggested making changes to the current board, such as adding more members or replacing their current two four-year terms with one seven-year term. She recalled hearing about "brutal" battles when the individual institutions previously came to the Legislature seeking funding.

"I don't know that we have a lot of solid evidence from other states that multiple boards are beneficial," Heckaman said.

The current State Board of Higher Education is etched into the state's constitution, meaning splitting governance would require voter approval. And Burgum noted that even tweaking the current model by changing term lengths or adding members would also require a constitutional amendment.

"If we're going to go through all that effort to try to get a constitutional change, then at least right now my stretch goal would be for us to try to get the most we can out of a governance change," Burgum said.

State Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, a Williston Republican appointed to the task force, said he's still considering the options but pushed for "safeguards" on institutional funding and student credit transfers if the state moves to a multi-board model.

North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani said he "respects the process and looks forward to the outcome," according to an email from spokeswoman Sadie Rudolph.

Burgum signed an executive order creating the task force almost a year ago. A Republican and former software executive who campaigned on "reinventing government," he said it was time to examine the state's higher education governance structure after having a similar model in place for 80 years.

Burgum appointed 15 people to the task force, which includes North Dakota Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle, state lawmakers from both parties, higher education officials, business leaders and others.

Burgum has said the task force wasn't a response to any controversies involving university system leadership in recent years, and he shrugged off voters' sound rejection of a 2014 ballot measure to replace the current board with a three-member, full-time commission.

Task force member Jonathan Sickler, the chief legal officer of Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services in Grand Forks, said "there are advantages" to the multi-board approach, though he acknowledged that would be a major change. He said having more than one board allows higher education leaders to be more "flexible."

"You look at how higher education has changed so much since the initial state board framework was put into place ... and I think how much higher education is likely to change in the years going forward, it seems justifiable in my mind," Sickler said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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