Mike Jacobs: Clamor for change in governing colleges
The higher education system has proven to be dysfunctional once again, as every North Dakotan probably knows by now. This could be explained, and history may find it an important question. It is not today's subject, however. An explanation would require more words than space allows, and it is not the most urgent question facing us.
The more urgent question is what should be done?
Already a clamor has arisen for changes in the way the state's colleges and universities are governed, and whether for good or ill, that discussion looms before us. As it proceeds, it's important to keep three points in mind.
The first of these is that the state constitution mentions each of the state's 11 colleges and universities, so closing any one of them would require a constitutional amendment. Voters haven't treated the idea favorably in past elections. The constitution doesn't preclude consolidation, however, nor even different missions.
Some of the four-year colleges could become technical schools, for example.
Ellen Chaffee reminded me of the second important point in an email exchange last week. She is a former vice chancellor of the North Dakota system and she served simultaneously as president of the state universities in Mayville and Valley City. Her point is that there are relatively few models for governing public colleges and universities, and North Dakota has tried them all.
One of these is the current system, which supposes an independent board overseeing a number of institutions that share some functions and that report to a central executive officer. In North Dakota's case, that central figure has the title "chancellor."
Another is a board with a weaker executive, one who represents the colleges and universities and advocates for them without having authority to direct their activities. For lack of a better term, this has been called the commissioner system, and it's the model that North Dakota used until the chancellor system was adopted in 1991.
Still another is a governing board that reports directly to the governor, who has the power to appoint and remove members. North Dakota used such a system until the Board of Higher Education was created in 1939. In 2013, the Legislature passed a constitutional amendment that would have established a three-member board reporting directly to the governor. Voters rejected the idea in the 2014 general election.
Another possible model would make each of the institutions free-standing with each reporting to a board that had no other responsibility. That's how North Dakota's system started. There were separate boards for UND and for each of the other colleges. That model was abandoned in the teens.
Yet another model would link smaller campuses to a larger institution, which all report to a single president, though each campus has its own local executive. This, too, has been tried in North Dakota. Chaffee herself was simultaneously president of universities in both Valley City and Mayville, and two-year colleges in Devils Lake and Williston once were branches of UND.
Dakota College at Bottineau once was a branch of NDSU and now is linked to Minot State University, though it is not a branch campus. Of these, both a return to the commissioner system and a system responsible to the governor have been advanced as alternatives to the current system.
North Dakota's experience shows that neither is ideal. The most deeply flawed, the state's history suggests strongly, is a board directly responsible to the governor. This once resulted in competing boards, with one refusing to retire when a new governor appointed another board. In another case, the governor fired faculty members at the agricultural college, now NDSU. This led directly to the establishment of the board-and-commissioner system. Pretty clearly, the temptation of political interference is real — and perhaps that's why critics of higher education have suggested restoring it.
The board-and-commissioner system presents a different kind of problem. It would give individual presidents more power, which led to the layers of duplication now hamstringing the system, and it made colleges subject to political bargaining, as legislators traded votes for buildings or programs.
The third point to remember as this discussion unfolds is that it is governance that's at issue, not the success of the colleges themselves. In general, the news from campuses is good — enrollment stabilized at Dickinson State University, scholarships increased at Williston State College, a new strategic plan at UND, to mention just three developments. The mission of educating students continues, as some 45,000 students eagerly pursue knowledge at North Dakota's public colleges and universities.
—In response to last week's column headlined "A self-inflicted wound to higher ed," Mark Hagerott, chancellor of the North Dakota University System, requested two clarifications. First, he did not raise the issue of a gubernatorial endorsement by Ed Schafer, acting president of UND. Rather this came to light due documents leaked from the university system office. Second, his request for an investigation came in response to critical comments from political leaders in the media.
Mike Jacobs is a retired editor and publisher of the Herald. His column appears Tuesdays. Email him at email@example.com.