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Jack Zaleski, Published July 28 2012

Zaleski: Student fees audit is a distraction

As certain as thunderstorms will rake the prairie in July, North Dakota legislators will glom on to any minor sideshow to beat up higher education. It’s a phenomenon that might not be unique to North Dakota, but it seems to be viewed as good politics by a few lawmakers.

Good politics is not necessarily good higher education.

The latest mini-flap came last week when a “performance” audit concluded that the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University spent student fees for expenditures other than the fees’ purported purposes. Described in news reports as “scathing,” the audit was presented to a legislative committee and analyzed by the audit manager, the person responsible for the audit’s contents. It should come as no surprise that the person(s) who wrote the report would defend it as gospel. It’s not exactly an independent review of the work, but that’s another topic for another time.

The reaction from a few lawmakers was predictable finger-wagging at the alleged failure of the two schools to spend student fees properly. Maybe there is a problem or two that needs corrective action. But it’s a small matter in the overall context of higher education.

All it amounts to is an opportunity for the regular gaggle of antagonists to take a few more unjustified shots at higher ed. It’s a new twist on “the devil is in the details,” except the details are relatively unimportant, and the devil is politics. The horns-and-tail set in the Legislature seems to relish the prospect of singeing higher ed with self-serving fire-and-brimstone threats.

What they should be doing is taking the advice given a couple of years ago by NDSU President Dean Bresciani in a state of the university address. He said North Dakota is better positioned than any other state to invest in and improve higher education. While most states struggle to fund public universities, North Dakota’s energy and agriculture economy is the strongest it has ever been. The campuses can attract the best teachers and researchers because North Dakota has the resources to pay top salaries and provide a stimulating and productive university environment.

In other words, it’s a new era in higher education that’s been a long time coming. Instead of settling for second-best (or mediocrity in some disciplines), North Dakota schools can join higher education’s top tier. The university system has been on that path for nearly 10 years, and recent top rankings for several superior programs confirm the progress.

That is the big picture legislators should embrace. The universities comprise an economic engine that should be fueled to capacity in order to ensure a future in which North Dakota is not only a leader in energy and farming but also in higher education.

A minor audit of questionable credibility is a distraction. Individual schools can fix what needs to be fixed (if anything). The Legislature should get about the serious business of fully funding a university system that can be well-positioned to embrace an exciting future.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701)-241-5521.