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Grant Shaft, Published February 20 2012

Higher ed board mandated to govern state’s campuses

During a special meeting of the state Board of Higher Education held on Feb. 13, the board asked North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to seek a declaratory opinion from the state Supreme Court as to the constitutionality of the law passed by the state Legislature last April requiring that the University of North Dakota’s official name and logo be the Fighting Sioux. Critics of the board and the University System have suggested that the board’s action is a power grab intended to infringe upon the referral process and the voting rights of the people inherent in that process.

The Board of Higher Education was constitutionally established in 1938 to remove the oversight of the state’s universities and colleges from the political process and place them under the control of an appointed Board of Higher Education. The process of appropriating funds to operate the institutions remained with the Legislature. Although this constitutionally established governance of higher education has resulted in periodic friction between the board and the legislative and executive branches, it has produced a state university system that is recognized as one of the finest in the United States when compared to national metrics including efficient use of taxpayer dollars, affordability, access, student satisfaction, graduate satisfaction, workforce training, employer satisfaction, graduation/retention rates or student performance on national exams.

The board is appointed by the governor to set governance and academic policy for North Dakota’s 11 institutions. Once appointed, board members take an oath to uphold the state constitution. Just as a governor, legislator or other state official swears to follow the constitution in exercising their office, board members are sworn to act in the best interest of our universities and colleges.

Regarding the Fighting Sioux issue, our oath requires us to act in the best interest of UND, its athletic program and its student athletes. This means it is our duty as the Board of Higher Education to challenge the constitutionality of a law that damages UND, even if the result of such a challenge may negate a statewide vote.

Those who have carefully examined the arguments presented by both sides of the issue and specifically the NCAA sanctions and what effect they have and will have on UND’s student athletes have concluded that the name and logo must be retired. This group now includes the governor, a significant majority of the Legislature, the attorney general, the Board of Higher Education, UND administration, the UND athletic department and all UND coaches, the UND alumni association, faculty, staff and students. In the coming months, you will hear these groups outline the reasons they believe it is necessary to retire the name and logo.

Those who truly support UND, both its academics and its athletics, will listen carefully to these voices and measure them against those who may have placed their affection for a beloved nickname and logo ahead of the institution itself and its student athletes.

Shaft is president of the state Board of Higher Education.