Burgum can’t paint over the mold problem in higher education

I am dubious of a proposal to change the governance structure of the North Dakota University System.

The idea comes from a task force Gov. Doug Burgum created to consider the issue, and it would replace our current eight-voting-member State Board of Higher Education with three boards consisting of nearly 40 members.

Burgum campaigned for office promising to “reinvent government.”

I’m not sure bloating bureaucracy is as innovative as he seems to think it is.

This proposal would create one board for the University of North Dakota, one for North Dakota State University, and a third to govern the other nine universities, mostly in western North Dakota, which clearly don’t matter as much to Burgum or his task force.

For decades our state has been fighting to beat back a fog of rank parochialism, particularly around UND and NDSU, to create a unified system of higher education which serves our students and our state.

This proposal would be an admission of defeat. A decision to give in to that parochialism and give our two largest universities their own boards to rubber stamp whatever it is the administration at those universities want.

Which usually has a lot to do with bloated sports programs and running up enrollment numbers indiscriminately, with little care given to things like completion rates. Or whether the students will be on a trajectory to fulfill North Dakota’s chronic workforce shortages.

Or even if the students themselves find value in their degrees.

I interviewed Burgum recently about this proposal, and he did little to allay my fears.

Our governor seems little interested in a unified system of higher education. He seems to think there’s been too much oversight of the universities from state officials. He estimated just 20 percent of the revenues at UND and NDSU come from the taxpayers of North Dakota.

That’s a figure which typically doesn’t include the hundreds of millions of dollars taxpayers have spent on building projects on those campuses, or the money taxpayers spend on subsidizing things like student loan programs.

It’s a figure only trotted out when the universities want to escape oversight.

Our friends in higher education like to claim fiscal independence when it’s convenient, but are quick to blame inadequacies in the state budget for their failures.

Clearly they’ve sold the governor on this rhetorical shell game.

Burgum and other supporters of this proposal claim our university system is too large for one board to govern.

I would counter that hostility to oversight from the campuses themselves is the problem. Nearly every scandal and controversy the current board has been embroiled in over the years has its roots in resistance and abstinence from the campus level.

Which makes this supposed solution something akin to giving a crying child candy to shut them up.

I had hoped Burgum’s task force would propose hard but needed solutions for what ails the university system. Perhaps fewer institutions, and more direct accountability to the people.

Instead we get what amounts to a glossy coat of paint over a mold problem.