Want to Make Things Worse? Abolish the State Board of Higher Education

When we go to the polls on November 4, we'd be making a serious mistake, even a colossal mistake, if we abolish the State Board of Higher Education, and replace it with a three-person commission. I repeat: as we seek to get better accountability and performance in higher education in North Dakota, the very worst thing we could do would be to pass this dangerous amendment (Measure 3), which would throw our entire system into pandemonium. It might even lead to an exodus of students from our 11 colleges and universities.

Higher education is expensive and complex. We need a fairly large and diverse State Board that represents every region of North Dakota, and brings a range of backgrounds, perspectives, ages, professions, and expertises to the table. A three-member commission appointed by the governor would be too small and too beholden to the person who appointed them, to protect the autonomy of our colleges and universities. Autonomy is the key word. Imagine for a moment a system that would permit the governor (whoever she or he is) or the legislature to start micro-managing higher education. Oy vey. The existing State Board of Higher Education is the right instrument for governing the system. It needs to be tweaked a bit, I think, but not abolished.

If we did this rash and unnecessary thing, we would be jeopardizing the accreditation of our 11 state colleges and universities. And no, this is not some sort of convenient talking point for those who advocate retaining the existing system. It is the stark truth. Accreditation of North Dakota's colleges and universities is granted by an entity known as the Higher Learning Commission, headquartered in Chicago, one of six regional accrediting organizations in the United States. The Higher Learning Commission exists to make sure that institutions of higher education meet certain standards, so that the public (and taxpayers) know that our large investment in higher education is paying off. We routinely certify and license accountants, dentists, doctors, nurses, even lawyers. Those "accrediting" entities protect us from fraud and shoddy work. That's precisely why we accredit institutions of higher education.

The Higher Learning Commission has no interest in intruding itself into North Dakota's political arena, but it has been asked by a range of disparate individuals, what would happen if the people of North Dakota passed this amendment. Their answer, very cautiously stated and with many humble disclaimers, is simple: chaos, and a serious threat to continued accreditation.

Delivering college and university education to young people in the 21st century is proving to be a complex and at times problematic business. I can understand why the public is frustrated. Tuition just keeps going up and up, in spite of the fact that North Dakota is now a very wealthy state. Each of the 11 institutions in North Dakota, and particularly the two flagship universities on the eastern border, at times appear to regard themselves as independent city-states like Florence or Venice, too proud and too grand to be governed by "outsiders" (like the State Board or the Chancellor of Higher Education). Meanwhile, something like 20% of the students who arrive within college and university gates require remedial training in math and English. The list is long.

So what is to be done?

The answer is not to blow up the system out of frustration, and install something that has not been carefully studied. The proposal before us—to eliminate the State Board and create a three-person commission—was hastily thrown together at the end of the last legislative session. It was born of frustration and impatience rather than careful reflection. If the people of North Dakota want to make fundamental changes in the way higher education is governed, we should create a blue ribbon commission to study best practices throughout the United States and bring a series of recommendations to the legislature, or empower a legislative interim committee to explore options and report back. At the very least, we should enter into a serious dialogue with the Higher Learning Commission to see what reforms or new models would meet their exacting standards, and which would be counter-productive.

A state government does many things—pave roads, collect taxes, manage wildlife—but higher education is a uniquely complex undertaking that needs a very significant measure of independence from the routine legislative and bureaucratic process. Jefferson famously said that his University of Virginia "will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead." To protect the intellectual life of colleges and universities, where professors sometimes produce scholarly discourse that is unpopular or provocative, where many essential research projects seem abstruse or frivolous to "common sense" citizens looking in from the outside, we need to maintain a wall of separation between state government and the sacred work of the universities.

The existing State Board of Higher Education was created to protect our colleges from the political meddling of North Dakota's populist Bill Langer (Governor 1932-34, 1937-39), who fired seven NDSU (NDAC) employees for failing to contribute to one of his campaigns. The Agricultural College (as it was then known) lost it accreditation for several years owing to Langer's machinations. The State Board of Higher Education was created thereafter to ensure academic freedom at our colleges and universities, and autonomy from political pressures.

I do believe we need some structural changes in the way we constitute the State Board. I favor a variation of what in judicial circles is known as the "Missouri Plan." An independent committee recommends a slate of worthy applicants to the governor. The governor chooses someone from the list. Then the State Board has to confirm the appointment by formal vote. Two years later, that board member has to stand for re-election by the people of North Dakota. This would provide important new tools for both the people and the board. The board could, if it felt strongly enough, reject a governor's appointment. This would seldom happen. And the people could vote no confidence to a board member who is perceived to be out of sync with the will of the electorate. We want good individuals on the State Board, but we want them to be more accountable to the people who dig in their pockets to pay the taxes to support higher education.

In my opinion, we do not need radical changes. What we do need is pretty simple: a long period of stability and good governance. We've had a rocky last decade, but with the appointment of Larry Skogen as Interim Chancellor we have begun to find a rhythm of integrity, stability, honesty, and good sense. There is very widespread agreement in North Dakota that Dr. Skogen has been an excellent Chancellor, that he has stopped the hemorrhaging, rebuilt the University System office, and shown us the path to a new era of good feeling in higher education. If the State Board now hires a more permanent Chancellor of Skogen's integrity—someone who understands the unique character of North Dakota, someone who seeks both excellence and harmony—we will stop talking about the problems in higher ed and get on with the real business of our 11 colleges and universities: preparing young people to be complete human beings, to have the tools to realize their dreams, to be enlightened citizens of the United States, and to compete successfully in an increasingly complex global marketplace.