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Rep. Scot Kelsh, Fargo, Published August 11 2012

Fees audit smelled like politics

When I was a student at North Dakota State University, I was annoyed by the requirement to pay student fees. On top of all my other expenses, I found that student fees lightened my wallet every semester. Many students shared my feelings. But now, 20 years later, I look back with pride at the outstanding education I received and how both my alma mater, NDSU, and the University of North Dakota are earning reputations as exceptional research universities.

So it was with interest that I read about the North Dakota state auditor’s recent audit of both universities’ use of student fees. There are many issues with this audit that should cause taxpayers considerable heartburn.

Opportunism

First, the timing reeks of political opportunism. It seems like it is open season in some political circles on higher education in North Dakota, constantly attacking colleges and universities at a time when they are doing a tremendous job of educating students and preparing them for careers. Some politicians are trying to have it both ways: They relish attacking faceless bureaucrats and professors, yet depend on them to provide the prepared workforce for our state’s economy for which they selfishly take credit. Why was this audit conducted now, during an election year?

Second, this audit is like examining a single kernel of wheat in a bushel – very narrow in scope and micromanaging to an unprecedented degree. Instead, the audit should have examined the use of student fees within the context of each university’s entire budget. A clearer picture would emerge as to how each university allocates its resources, indicating the amount of money collected from fees relative to the overall budget. Why was this not done? And why were only student fees singled out?

Misuse of resources

Third, the auditor has stated that his office is strained for resources and cannot keep pace with the workload. I agree with that assessment. However, there are many North Dakota communities and counties that have gone years without an audit due to the costs of hiring a specialist to conduct them. Rather than expending already-strained resources on an audit that provided an incomplete picture of the universities, why not step up and provide assistance to political subdivisions that are struggling to meet mandated auditing requirements?

Finally – and most worrisome of all – is the discovery during this audit that there is so little interaction between the state auditor and the universities regarding performance practices. How can one expect the auditor to conduct a fair audit when there’s little understanding of the practices and procedures involved?

That’s why as state auditor, I will appoint a liaison to develop a better understanding of each agency’s expectations and to inform each agency as to the state auditor’s expectations. Cooperation and clear communications will save resources and tax dollars. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. Right now, with a state auditor who has been in office for almost 16 years, we are doing it the hard way, and taxpayers are paying for it.

Piling on

When it comes to our research universities, it’s important to keep things in perspective. A significant part of the mission of both NDSU and UND is to work hand in hand with private and public interests in developing forward-thinking discoveries and technologies that benefit us all. North Dakota has a long and solid history of such private-public partnerships with higher education. And these partnerships have been critical to advancements that are now benefiting our state’s economy.

Now is not the time for piling on when the economic potential for positive developments is at its highest level. And there’s never any time for politically motivated audits.


Kelsh, D-Fargo, is Democratic-NPL candidate for state auditor.