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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published January 31 2011

Bills seek greater legislative control over North Dakota higher education

BISMARCK – Several bills in the North Dakota Legislature aim to give lawmakers more control over higher education.

Some worry the bills could lead to micromanagement of the colleges and universities while others say the proposals could open up healthy discussions about best practices.

Chancellor Bill Goetz said there appears to be more bills this session geared toward inserting more legislative control and oversight of higher education.

Examples include:

“At this point, I’m not sure that this is something that is a focus of the legislative body in total other than specific legislators,” Goetz said.

Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said some legislators and members of the public are frustrated with the higher education board, and think board members aren’t managing the colleges and universities as well as they could.

“Some of this could still be carryover from the frustration with the board of higher ed and their lack of oversight over the Fargo president’s house,” said Kelsch, R-Mandan.

During a legislative hearing last week, Rep. Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck, who has sponsored many of the higher education bills, said the state can’t sustain the large increases in funding for higher education that have been seen in recent sessions.

In one of his bills, Dosch asks the state board to provide a long-term budget plan that would be sustainable.

Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, cautioned during the hearing about using numbers that can mislead. Some of the figures Dosch cites about the increase in spending for higher education include dollars that went to students for scholarships and grants, not to support the campuses.

“We want accountability,” Hawken said. “But I think we need to be careful about throwing out figures.”

Claus Lembke, a member of the state board, doesn’t think the attitude toward higher education is different than last session.

“We have to learn that we have different responsibilities. We are getting along pretty well,” Lembke said. “During the session, it’s highlighted.”

Bills that relate to the “Fighting Sioux” nickname controversy add another element that wasn’t there last session, Lembke added.

Board President Jon Backes said micromanagement is not good for higher education.

“I think it’s a very complex system and it needs a concerted and consistent management effort, which I think is best applied by the board of higher education,” Backes said.

However, Backes said he doesn’t “take umbrage” with the fact that some legislators have different views about how the university system should run.

“There are different ideas about how our higher education system should run and what it should be doing and how it should be funded,” Backes said. “And the Legislature certainly is the place for those ideas to be aired, discussed and occasionally implemented.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590