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Legislative restraint important in fiscal mess

By Staff | May 21, 2010

With fiscal affairs amuck, North Dakota higher education is experiencing its third major scandal since statehood.

A recent audit indicated that big dollars may have been spent without authority at the state’s two largest universities.

In 1937, Governor William Langer, acting through his Board of Administration, arbitrarily fired the president and four deans at NDSU. The action so enraged the alumni that they initiated a constitutional amendment to create an independent board of higher education to “control and administer” the state’s institutions. It was adopted in the June 1938 primary.

In 1948, NDSU President Fred Hultz decided he would implement a 10-year expansion plan without consulting the faculty. This led to the firing of four faculty members in 1955 and the blacklisting of the school by the American Association of University Professors.

Now a recent audit of the two universities has documented a series of suspicious fiscal decisions and possible evasion of policies of the Board of Higher Education. The Legislative Audit and Fiscal Review Committee, consisting of one-third of the Legislature, discussed the sequence of events at a recent session in Bismarck.

Naturally, legislators berated the Board for its lack of oversight and began making suggestions for curtailing the powers of the Board. One thought the Board perhaps should be reorganized. Another proposed that the Board of Higher Education be abolished, alleging that his constituents would favor such a move.

But James Madison warned us about legislatures. “The legislative department is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex,” he wrote in 1787 as he noted the need for other branches of government to check the legislative quest for power.

His insight rings true for the North Dakota Legislature when it comes to the Board of Higher Education. It has added two of its own to the committee for nominating Board members; it has muscled into programmatic areas through the Roundtable of Higher Education, and it even considered mandating a UND-NDSU football game. There is no doubt that it has a nose for getting into the tent.

Unfortunately, the fiscal missteps have provided a creditable opportunity for restricting or usurping Board authority. It is a good bet that some members of the Audit and Fiscal Review Committee will be introducing bills in the next session of the Legislature to expand its authority in higher education. Even though the Board enjoys constitutional protection, a mean-spirited legislature can still make life miserable for higher education. The situation requires legislative restraint.

Chancellor Bill Goetz cautioned that “the sins of a few” should not be used as an excuse to damage the whole system. Legislators need to remember that they, too, have made costly fiscal errors. Not too long ago, the Legislative Council lost a million or so in a computer contract because of poor oversight. We all are flawed.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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