On April 18, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum submitted his proposed budget guidelines for 2019-2021, which include a 10 percent reduction in the state’s per-credit-hour funding formula for higher education. This cut, a loss of over $50 million in state appropriation dollars, “has system leaders on notice,” according to an April 19 article in the Fargo Forum. If the governor’s proposal is approved by the legislature, North Dakota’s higher ed budget will have been cut by about one-third in just four years.
Although the governor has stated that specific cuts are up to university and college administrators, institutions’ choices are likely to be affected by the governor’s higher education task force, appointed in December 2017. One of the group’s primary objectives is to explore higher ed practices in other states to determine what steps, including budgetary changes, should become part of North Dakota’s system. According to Burgum, “This group represents a wide range of backgrounds and expertise that will ensure a thoughtful assessment of our nearly 80-year-old governance structure and whether the higher education system is operating at its full potential to prepare students for success in a world undergoing rapid technological disruption.”
North Dakota’s higher education employees, students, and parents may be wary of this proclaimed diversity and expertise, however. The task force has limited experience in higher education. Only three of the task force’s fifteen representatives work in higher ed, and only one of these three, Dr. Paul Markel of Minot State University, is a professor. The task force does include a university student, Katie Mastel, a marketing major and student body president at North Dakota State University in Fargo. By and large, the task force’s other members are state business and political leaders. While North Dakota’s higher education must, of course, be responsive to multiple state interests, including our students’ potential employers and state politicians, it is strange that a task force dedicated to higher education review should be comprised of so few higher education employees, let alone educators.
North Dakota’s higher education community can’t be surprised by the fact that Burgum, the former president of Great Plains Software (now part of Microsoft’s Business Solutions Group), is particularly interested in the ways ND’s higher education can become more “nimble and responsive to what I call demand signals.” As the task force continues its work, we can expect to see a focus on universities and colleges that meet the governor’s ideals in these areas. An April 6 article in the Grand Forks Herald noted that Burgum is intrigued by the business model Arizona State University President Michael Crow has created, which is heavily dependent on grants, public/private partnerships, and on-line courses. Sixty-five percent of ASU’s budget came from the state when President Crow took office, Burgum said; “Today, they receive 9 percent.” Furthermore, Burgum stated, “They didn’t do it by being better salesmen to the state … they did it by listening to the demand signals from the market.”
Without a doubt, Arizona State offers programs that are worthy of the task force’s review. Educators in North Dakota might be more impressed by the governor’s intentions, however, if he focused on the university’s innovative educational programs and not just the university’s budget and market responsiveness. ASU should be lauded for its highly successful STRETCH program approach to first-year composition, for example, which has included outreach to central Arizona’s Native American communities.
Of course, not everyone in the state is on board with the governor’s proposed cuts. Burgum’s language suggests a vision of higher education that emphasizes potential employers rather than students; as such, his perspective seems to clash with educators who see their jobs as student- and/or learning-centered.
Some objections to the governor’s proposed cuts have been raised by members of the State Board of Higher Education (SBHE) itself. On April 26, Dave Kolpack of the Associated Press reported the concerns of two SBHE members, Mike Ness of Hazen and Casey Ryan of Grand Forks. According to Ness, the former superintendent of the Hazen Public School District,
“This time it’s really going to dig deep … It’s going to take a lot of personnel out and it’s going to take major programs out of our system. I don’t think we as a board should just accept that like we did last legislative session and say, ‘Well that’s OK, we’ll live within our means.'”
Although these objections seem to suggest the possibility of real debate on the proposed cuts, the chair of the North Dakota SBHE, Don Morton, is likely to follow the governor’s lead. Morton, like Burgum, is a former Microsoft Business Solutions executive who shares the governor’s business-oriented, market-driven perspective toward higher ed. Furthermore, since the SBHE’s membership, like the governor’s higher education task force, is slanted toward business and industry rather than education, Ness’s and Ryan’s objections may well be disregarded. Ness’s SBHE term is up on June 30.
North Dakota United, which represents the state’s employees, including K-12 and higher ed, has also spoken out against the proposed cuts. On April 19, NDU President Nick Archuleta announced that “North Dakota United has already been invited by the Governor’s office to come in to speak about our concerns, and to make suggestions on how we can continue to recruit and retain excellent public employees.” Archuleta asks NDU education members to “stay engaged and vigilant, and let’s do all we can to help steer our state back in the right direction.”