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Ryan Johnson, Published February 01 2013

Higher education power struggle started by NDSU ‘purge’ in 1937

FARGO - The ongoing power struggle over North Dakota’s public higher education started unexpectedly with a political showdown more than 75 years ago, former politician and current Forum Communications Co. columnist Lloyd Omdahl said.

He said the controversy that followed the 1937 “purge” of North Dakota State University faculty members led to the creation of the state Board of Higher Education that largely operates outside of direct government authority.

Omdahl said that event had unforeseen consequences that continue to play out today, shifting a power struggle that had been between the governor and higher education institutions to a test of authority between state legislators and university administrators that he said is behind recent bids to get more control over the campuses.

“I think it has its roots and body in the competition with the Legislature,” he said. “Every session, they want to get more authority over higher education, so it’s almost always a standoff.”

But House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said that misses the main intent of legislators: to ensure the higher education enterprise that now receives nearly $1 billion of state funding every two years is accountable.

“The issue sometimes has not been fought on the right battle,” Carlson said. “The battleground should be what is our commitment and what do we expect from the return of the investment that we put into higher ed, not who’s the big dog in the kennel.”

Political ‘purge’?

The so-called 1937 “purge” of seven NDSU staff members, including four deans, caused an immediate outcry and raised concerns over political meddling and a loss of academic freedom.

The university, then known as North Dakota Agricultural College, was stripped of its accreditation. The North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools gave a simple explanation why it had to take action – “politics.”

Fargo Forum Editor H. D. Paulson wrote in a 1938 editorial that the “reckless and irresponsible blunderings” of administrators had “all but wrecked a good share of the things which were worthwhile in North Dakota’s higher institutions of learning.”

The scenario that made the purge possible actually started in 1919, when voters approved creating the Board of Administration, the third such board to oversee higher education since North Dakota adopted its constitution in 1889.

Three of the Board of Administration’s five members were appointed by the governor, putting responsibility for the education system solely under the executive branch.

That structure came into play in late July 1937 when the board, acting on behalf of Gov. William “Wild Bill” Langer, dismissed seven Agricultural College staff members without making formal charges or conducting a hearing. President John Shepperd resigned, apparently under political pressure, and the director of the Experiment Station and Extension Service was relieved of his duties.

Many believed there was strong political motivation, Elwyn B. Robinson wrote in “History of North Dakota,” because the firings gave Langer control of the Experiment Station and Extension Service – branches of the college that had 3,200 employees and distributed $20 million in federal funding to North Dakota farmers annually.

“Repercussions were immediate and significant,” Robinson wrote. “Angry students burned four members of the Board of Administration in effigy. Dr. A.F. Yeager, the famous plant breeder, resigned in disgust, lashing the board for wrecking the college.”

The school’s alumni association circulated a petition for a constitutional amendment that would remove control from the Board of Administration, and the issue was put on the 1938 ballot.

The Fargo Forum outlined arguments for and against the measure on June 17, 1938, saying it would remove schools from political control, “which is all too obvious under the present state board of administration setup,” while also unifying the separate campuses.

The article also cautioned that the proposed new administrative body could “press for more and more funds for the schools instead of effecting savings in their operation” because the schools would be overseen by a board made up of officials “interested only in the schools.”

Voters approved the amendment 57 percent to 43 percent, and on July 1, 1939, new Gov. John Moses appointed members to the newly created State Board of Higher Education and helped reinstate the fired faculty members. The Agricultural College regained accreditation.

New power struggle

Omdahl said the new model was a crucial response to the 1937 scandal because it gave the board broad constitutional authority, empowering it exclusively to manage and supervise the campuses.

The board’s seven members were still appointed by the executive branch. But the change meant the governor could only select appointees from a list of three names agreed to by four other state officials – the president of the North Dakota Education Association, chief justice of the Supreme Court, superintendent of public instruction and president pro tempore of the Senate. The speaker of the state House gained a say in nominees with a 1996 change.

The revamped administration took away much of the power the governor had previously wielded, Omdahl said. It also set up a new power struggle that continues today.

“The Legislature became the adversary because they were competing for authority over what the institutions were going to do,” he said. “It’s pretty clear in the constitution that the Board of Higher Education has exclusive authority over the institutions, and the legislative connection is that they appropriate the money. Of course, that gives them leverage to negotiate and bargain.”

There have been changes in the years since, including the addition of a full-time student member in 1994 and changing a board member’s term of office from seven to four years in 1996. In 1990, board members voted to create a “true state system” that put the North Dakota University System at the helm.

Efforts to make sweeping changes in the structure of higher education have largely been unsuccessful, and Omdahl said that owes to residents holding education as one of their core values.

“I think that explains why anything changing the board would run into opposition in the populace because everybody values higher education and they don’t value politics,” he said. “This is really a nonpartisan state in its real gut, and so they would be adverse to politicians getting involved in a sacred function of government.”

Carlson said it’s not only legislators who expect more accountability. He said the general public is “very concerned,” especially as state funding to higher education and the cost of getting a college degree increase dramatically.

“We expect more than ever because they’re asking for more than ever, and we’re asking for the citizens,” Carlson said. “That’s who we work for.”

Board of Higher Education President Duaine Espegard said the system takes politics out of higher education as much as possible, allowing it to run like a business.

He said the arrangement also serves as a check and balance, with the Legislature controlling funding, and the board and chancellor expected to deliver strong academic outcomes and being accountable to the taxpayers while continuing to improve.

“There’s always going to be, not a conflict, but a difference,” Espegard said. “The governor and the Legislature always have an issue between them, and there’s always an issue between higher education and the Legislature. That’s always going to be there. That’s normal, but that also is good, and I think at the end of the day we have a good system and I think at the end of the day it can even get better.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587