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Published April 25 2012

Ex-football coach Morton ready to call plays with North Dakota higher ed board

FARGO – As a man who once endured three losing seasons as a Big Ten football coach at Wisconsin, Don Morton knows a few things about pressure. So he figures he can handle whatever the state Board of Higher Education – which has seen one member resign and another forego a second term in the face of high-stress debates and grueling workloads – throws at him.

These days, that qualifies as a bold assumption. Political battles, a contentious relationship with some state legislators, and headache-inducing issues like the Fighting Sioux nickname debate have chased out two of the board’s eight members in recent months.

Michael Haugen of Fargo, whom Morton will replace, decided not to seek a second term, and Claus Lembke of Bismarck resigned last week. Both cited the stress and workload of the job in their decisions to step down.

“I may be naïve,” said Morton, who was named to the board on Tuesday by Gov. Jack Dalrymple, “but I’m not concerned at this point.”

Morton, the current site manager for Microsoft’s Fargo campus and former national title-winning coach at North Dakota State University, said he’s always taken a strong interest in higher education – both in two decades as a coach and later as NDSU’s director of university relations.

He also served on search committees for outgoing North Dakota University System Chancellor Bill Goetz and current NDSU President Dean Bresciani, and on the North Dakota Higher Education Roundtable.

He said higher education is a topic that dovetails with the interests of Microsoft, and friends and colleagues encouraged him to seek a spot on the board.

“We work for a corporation that is very dependent on higher education, and very supportive,” he said.

He cited graduation rates and college costs among his chief concerns. More than half of students at two-year schools in the university system don’t finish their degrees within three years, and more than a third of four-year students don’t finish within six, according to the most recent NDUS accountability report.

“Students aren’t completing their education in a timely way,” he said.

When it comes to navigating a political landscape in which some elected officials have come down hard on the board for decisions ranging from budgets to tuition and the Sioux nickname – and even proposed abolishing the board outright – Morton said he hopes his experience as a “people” person comes in handy.

“At the end of the day, it’s always dealing with people,” he said.

Despite sometimes contradictory stances and contentious rhetoric, he said, the various stakeholders in higher education – lawmakers, board members, students, faculty, taxpayers – all want an effective, high-quality system.

Getting a handle on his new role will take some time, he said.

“There’s going to be a learning curve,” he said. “I think that many of those issues go pretty deep.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

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