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Omdahl: Measure 3 kills higher ed participation

By Staff | Sep 12, 2014

According to the major sponsor of Measure 3, North Dakota higher education is “beyond the ability of a group of volunteers.” Proposed by the Legislature, Measure 3 would replace the 8-member Board of Higher Education with three full-time commissioners.

Talking about volunteers brings up the same argument about legislators. Legislators have described themselves as “citizen legislators” as though that made them better able to make policy decisions than the full-time legislators found in other states.

In recent years, the responsibilities of state government have grown tremendously and we are seeing some evidence of amateurism in major legislative policy decisions. To maintain the volunteer status of legislators, we have had to develop all sorts of triggers, interim committees and gimmicks to keep the system running.

It is doubtful that legislators who are proposing to turn higher education over to a full-time commission would agree that the state could benefit from better management with full-time legislators.

The Legislature has almost 150 members so that it can foster deliberation and responsiveness. Because the Board of Higher Education is also a major policymaking body, it must also be a system that provides for deliberation and responsiveness.

An 8-member board can be more deliberate and more responsive than a 3-member commission that would result in more top-down management with less deliberation and responsiveness. When it comes to deliberation, eight heads are better than three; when it comes to responsiveness, eight contact points are better than three.

The Board of Higher Education must be responsive to a wide range of constituencies. These include legislators, parents, students, alumni, university administrators, faculty, chambers of commerce and taxpayers. All of them have a major stake in higher education and they deserve to be heard in the policy process.

Measure 3 proposes one commissioner to represent business and one to represent higher education, and a third at-large. That’s pretty narrow representation for the wide range of constituencies involved in higher education.

Because the objectives of these constituencies are not always in harmony, the board is required to spend considerable time negotiating policy differences. A 3-member full-time management commission would provide less negotiating and more mandating.

We have had some recent experience with top-down management. Former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani was invited to North Dakota to take charge of higher education. He was a top-down manager and his emphasis on management made many people unhappy, including legislators.

The fact is that North Dakota doesn’t tolerate autocratic management. This is clearly indicated by the structure of our state and local governments. It is a system that values participation over management so everybody can have a “say”.

If Measure 3 is approved, the commission will be going down the road with Shirvani. An initiated measure will soon appear to put an end to this top-down management because it is alien to North Dakota expectations and practice.

Admittedly, the Board has made mistakes. More often than not, it has been blindsided by off-screen institutional transgressions. The same thing happens in the Legislature and bills must be introduced in every session to correct the errors of previous sessions.

More specifically, the Legislative Council made a multi-million dollar mistake with a technology contract a couple of years ago. It just buried the mistake and went forward and no legislator suggested that we appoint a full-time management team to replace the Council.

In the case of Measure 3, explainable mistakes are being used as a pretext for the Legislature to make a grab for control of higher education.

Participatory governance is a bedrock North Dakota value. Because Measure 3 undermines deliberation and participation, it should be defeated.

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