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Published March 02 2013

Forum editorial: Resist politicizing higher ed

Legislators should be cautious about approving two – or even one – constitutional amendments for the ballot that could destroy the necessary independence of the North Dakota University System. Two proposals making their way through the Legislature would, in one form or another, eliminate the state Board of Higher Education and replace it with politically appointed or elected regents, directors and a chancellor. The political component in higher education is the risk.

The initiatives are facades for what in practice would be a historic re-politicizing of higher education. Of course, politics as practiced by legislators is part of the higher ed equation. That cannot be avoided. But the buffer of the state board tends to blunt the negative effects of lawmakers’ political machinations, which often masquerade as “oversight.”

The board was established in 1938 as a response to over-the-top political interference in the operations, faculty rights and curricula at state universities and colleges. Displaying vision and wisdom seldom seen together in state government and among voters, a higher education board was enshrined in the constitution – a mechanism to protect the schools from the vagaries and parochialism of partisan politics. It worked, imperfectly of course, but far better than clumsy and often destructive micromanagement by the Legislature, which was the practice of the past.

The amendments under consideration in Bismarck hearken back to that unpleasant and unproductive past. They have the potential to undermine a very good system that has been getting better every decade. That progress, despite an occasional headline-making bump, cannot be denied.

Politics is always a factor in state-funded schools. That’s obvious from the controversy that’s erupted around the system’s new chancellor. But the current board system, as imperfect as it might be, can act above the political fray without fear of substantive repercussions. The board can weather criticism and do what board members believe is in the best interests of the campuses. And they still must accomplish that task within the framework of the Legislature’s funding responsibility.

It’s a good balance that might list one way or the other on occasion, but generally keeps the higher education ship on course. Lawmakers should be very careful about embracing measures that would tip the system into a quagmire of elective and legislative politics.


Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.