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OMDAHL: Higher ed task force faces cultural barriers

By Staff | Nov 17, 2017

Governor Doug Burgum is in the process of appointing a task force with the mandate that the group look primarily at the governance of higher education in North Dakota.

For those of us who had hoped that he would bring a creative focus to delivering knowledge utilizing his broad experience in the electronic world this venture into governance will be a disappointment.

By pointing to governance as the primary problem in higher education, time and money will be spent pursuing an unachievable goal of structural reform in a state that has rejected proposal after proposal to change the governance higher education.

It is unclear how the present eight-member board is the barrier to improving the knowledge delivery system. Much could be accomplished within the parameters of the existing board governance.

Governor Burgum, in an op-ed piece to North Dakota newspapers, suggests that we need a governance system that is more nimble and responsive.

The proposal of House Majority Leader Al Carlson to replace the eight members with a three-member full-time commission would have been very nimble and responsive. That was soundly defeated by the voters.

Before the board was created in 1938, higher education was nimble and responsive. Because it was nimble and responsive, Governor Langer was able to fire faculty members at North Dakota State University.

Now to become nimble and responsive, the board may have to be cut down to fewer members, hold less frequent meetings, and restrict opportunities for higher education constituents to interact with the board.

The board itself recently proposed reducing meetings from ten per year to quarterly. This brought an instant outcry from higher education constituents that this would reduce interaction with the board.

The board could be very nimble and responsive if it didn’t listen to everyone who wants to participate. However, North Dakota has a cultural tradition of open, participatory government.

It is amazing that so few policymakers understand the political culture within which they operate. The whole idea of trading deliberation for dispatch is so countercultural that proposals created without participation are dead on arrival. The Carlson 3-person commission went down in flames because it would have destroyed participation.

At the risk of being repetitive, our political culture is manifested not only by historic institutions but also our day-to-day practice of policymaking and administering.

We have more local governments per capita than any other state. We have over 1000 townships so that even five or six people can have their own government. We have the largest legislature per capita outside of New Hampshire. All of this is an institutional manifestation of a participatory culture.

Over the past decades, we have heard proposals to reduce townships and counties and to consolidate state agencies. Even when common sense dictates these reforms, they have died a certain death because North Dakota prefers participation to efficiency.

The board of higher education is about as small as a board can be and still listen to constituents, make policy, and formulate administrative courses of action. Which of these can be cut and leave an effective governing body?

Governor Burgum says that the focus of the task force will be “identifying an optimal governance structure that allows our higher education system to be the most effective and efficient system it can be.”

Believe it or not, I used to champion government reorganization at all levels. But after 60 years of trying, I finally accepted the North Dakota political culture for what it is.

I now subscribe to Reinhold Reibuhr’s credo: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

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