Gov. Burgum’s higher ed task force could be the most important thing he does in office

Governor Doug Burgum called into my radio show this last week, and during our conversation I told him his new higher education task force could be the most important thing he does during his term in office.

I meant it.

The need for reform in the North Dakota University System, beginning with the governance structure which is the primary mission of this task force, is achingly apparent.

Unfortunately, because parochial politics that stretch back even into the earliest days of statehood, Burgum’s task force could also be the least consequential endeavor of his administration.

This latter outcome is the conclusion of most of the state’s political observers I’ve spoken to about the task force. “It’ll be a lot of hot air,” one prominent Republican told me.

“They won’t accomplish anything,” a Democratic lawmaker confided.

I choose to be optimistic. Because, again, reform is badly needed.

Our university system consists of no fewer than eleven institutions of various sizes scattered across the state’s landscape. The existence of most of them is mandated by our state constitution.

This is important to remember, because a number of these institutions exist not so much to serve the education needs of our state but to bring government jobs and student-driven commerce to the communities they reside in.

Think of them as jobs programs, not academic endeavors.

We could serve the students of North Dakota better if we consolidated some of these institutions, closing them down and moving the important programs to other campuses, but efforts to do so in the past have failed. That’s because each campus is protected by a mob of local politicians and business leaders who are loathe to lose the jobs and commerce in their areas.

It’s those poor priorities, the idea that higher education institutions themselves are more important than delivering efficient and quality education to students, which need to change.

Governor Burgum seems to understand that need for that change. He’s spoken, at length, about a coming change in what he calls “knowledge transfer.” He says the universities need to adapt to new realities. He even told me that proposing the removal of some of the state’s institutions from the constitution is not off the table for this task force.

But that’s not going to happen as long as local economic interests trump students in the eyes of voters.

Burgum is invested in this task force. He’s choosing the members. He’s chairing it. Those are good things.

But can his task force break through the bubble of parochial politics to bring real change?

History tells us he isn’t likely to succeed, but this observer is rooting for Burgum in a big way.