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Lloyd Omdahl, Published July 01 2012

Omdahl: Higher ed attacks coming

In their unending war with the Board of Higher Education, some legislators are planning another attack in the upcoming legislative session. While a variety of excuses are being offered, the truth is that the Legislature wants to grab more authority in state governance and can’t tolerate a constitutionally independent entity over which they have no direct control.

Most legislators accept the constitutional arrangement for the board, but there are a few in every session who are bent on grabbing more power. After 75 years, we have become familiar with legislative encroachment on this independent board created by the people in the 1930s to insulate it from politics. However, the politicians never give up.

As a pretext for grabbing power, some legislators are pointing to the board’s handling of the Sioux logo. This is an ironic argument since the whole logo fiasco was fathered by the Legislature in the first place. It was none of their business.

Another accusation relates to the reckless granting of degrees at Dickinson State. This was a failure on the part of the staff rather than the board itself.

A change in the structure of the board would not have avoided any of these problems.

“Is there a better way to do it? I don’t know the answer to that,” board Chairman Grant Shaft stated recently.

After considering all options, the eight-member board system in North Dakota looks like the best possible vehicle for responsible nonpolitical management of the 11 public institutions of higher learning. Even so, legislators are throwing out ideas, but none of their proposals are as good as what we already have.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, sponsor of the logo fiasco, is proposing a director of higher education appointed by the governor who would be advised by an 11-member council appointed by the governor with the consent of the legislative leadership.

This proposal has a number of defects. First, it confuses accountability. Gubernatorial appointees should be accountable to the governor. This would not be the case if a council were giving policy direction to the governor’s appointee.

Second, the governor would not be permitted to appoint the council without the “advice and consent” of the “legislative leadership.” This means that the majority and minority floor leaders would have considerable influence in the kind of advice the council would be giving higher education.

An equally defective proposal is the idea presented by the Citizens for Responsible Government, an alleged “think tank” in Bismarck. They are talking about initiating a constitutional amendment calling for the statewide election of a commissioner of higher education to run the institutions. This is an interesting suggestion for a state that already elects twice as many officials as the average state. Voters are already overtaxed in the election process.

If it weren’t for partisan identification and name familiarity, most voters wouldn’t know how to vote on offices below governor. Citizens for Responsible Government who think otherwise should take a list of the state offices filled by election down the street and ask residents to name the current officeholders. They can’t. Academic institutions require more professional insight and oversight than the average politician can offer.

In addition, running for office is about as political as it gets. Instead of protecting higher education from politics, electing the commissioner would make academic tenure, courses of study, faculty qualifications and college officials fair game. The institutions would be scandalized by nitpicking in every session.

Shaft’s question is appropriate. The answer is that there is likely not a better way to govern higher education than our current board system.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com