Changes ahead

North Dakota’s higher education system needs new management to meet the needs of tomorrow’s workforce, according to North Dakota House Majority Leader Al Carlson.

“The face of higher education has changed. We need to look at the next 20 years instead of the last 20 years,” he said.

The Fargo Republican spoke Friday at the invitation of the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce’s Governmental Affairs Committee to a group that included legislators, Minot State University students and faculty and others from business and local government.

Carlson addressed the ballot measure that goes before voters in November to change the governance of the state’s 11 colleges and universities from an eight-member advisory board and chancellor to a full-time, three-member commission.

The commission would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate in the same way that advisory board members currently are selected.

Carlson noted the troubles that the higher education system has seen recently a diploma mill at Dickinson State university, ouster of a chancellor after battles with university presidents and the University of North Dakota’s purchase of a struggling research facility in violation of legislative intent.

“It’s also become a $2 billion enterprise,” he said. “It’s a very big business, and it needs a new direction.”

The Legislature has increased funding for higher education from $472 million in the 2007-09 biennium to $902 million in the 2013-15 biennium.

“And they still continue to raise tuition on the students. We need to look at efficiency. We need to look at better management,” he said.

“Our citizens are stepping to the plate and doing their job,” he said of the state funding level. “We need to make sure that trickles on down.”

Carlson discounted one argument against a full-time board that suggests that universities could lose their accreditation. He said several states use commission governance and have accredited institutions. The accreditation panel wants to see that institutions are free from political influence.

“I don’t believe there would be any more or less political influence,” he said.

Danielle Foster, a member of the Minot State University Student Senate, offered her concern about students losing the voice that they now have with a voting member on the Board of Higher Education.

Carlson responded that he would like to see an advisory board with a student member continue to provide input to a new commission.

He also sought to ease concern that decisions about higher education would fall into the hands of a few, of which two would be a majority. He noted the similarity to the three-member Public Service Commission or three-member Industrial Commission.

Carlson added that the state needs to better define the role of college presidents and demand results from institutions, including ending any disconnect between higher education and workforce needs. He indicated support for a three-tier system with research, baccalaureate and technical/trade institutions a concept that hasn’t had full support in Minot.

Chamber president John MacMartin said Minot State University is a comprehensive university that falls between a baccalaureate and a research university.

“It’s a different niche,” he said, noting the higher level of degree programs and instructor standards than the typical four-year university. “We have to somehow keep that in mind.”

Carlson also stressed the need for more industrial arts courses in high schools to encourage students who consider trades careers over college. The state has upped funding to elementary and secondary schools to contribute to property-tax relief of more than $800 million this biennium. To continue that tax relief in the next biennium might require $1 billion, he said.

“The question is, can we continue that pace?” he said. “We just have to be careful as we go forward that we don’t out-run our existing revenue.”

He explained the state is spending money not designated to savings funds as fast as it comes in.

“But if we have a hiccup in our revenue, we have created ourselves a situation where something would go,” he said. “The only thing that let’s me sleep at night is a lot of it is in one-time spending.”

However, he said there is a need to build infrastructure in oil-field communities and elsewhere to handle population increases.

“We are going to keep investing as a state in these growth areas,” he said.