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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published March 15 2013

North Dakota House passes bill to restructure higher ed

BISMARCK – House lawmakers spoke loudly Friday that they want voters to decide whether they want to scrap the current system that oversees higher education in North Dakota.

The House passed House Concurrent Resolution 3047 by a 64-28 vote, which would remove the state Board of Higher Education from the constitution and create an appointed director of higher education under the governor’s office.

If passed by the Senate, the measure will be put on the November 2014 ballot. If approved in a statewide vote, the new system would be put in place July 1, 2015.

The proposal is one of four that would restructure how the North Dakota University System governs the 11 public institutions as lawmakers push back against controversial Chancellor Hamid Shirvani. The state board hired Shirvani last year to lead North Dakota’s public colleges and universities, but he has been criticized for what some believe were quick decisions with little input to revamp the system.

Rep. Joe Heilman, R-Fargo, carried the bill to the floor from the House Education Committee, which gave it a 7-6 do-pass recommendation.

Heilman said the bill allows the people of North Dakota to adopt a modified governance structure for higher education by setting up a clear chain of command – the governor, director, college presidents and Legislature – and clarifying the role of the legislative assembly.

The director would serve three-year terms, with the ability to be reappointed.

“I’ve seen a very volatile system of governance in this important area, when mistakes are made we blame the board and the board blames us, “ he said. “When the discussion of real policy is overcast by controversy, mistrust and power struggles, the ones who really lose out are our customers, the students.”

Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, said this is the time to change the system.

“The need is there; we need to change how things are handled so we have a person where the buck stops,” he said.

Becker had proposed a resolution to remove the state board from the constitution and replace it with an elected higher education commissioner. The proposal failed Friday by a 70-21 vote.

Only two spoke out against the idea to restructure the system, both with different perspectives.

Rep. Eliot Glassheim, D-Grand Forks, said the proposals would undermine the basic missions and historic traditions of the state’s colleges and universities.

“They need to be protected from changing whims and passions of political life,” he said. “I fear the vitality and independence of individual campuses will be compromised in bureaucratic hierarchy with one man hiring and firing the presidents.”

Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, who has backed Shirvani since he was hired, said the problems lie in the state board hiring process, not the members of the board.

“If we put more effort into ensuring candidates brought forward to serve on the board represent the types of industries, types of business, types of background the board needs, I think we would do a much larger service to students,” he said, adding that it’s not Shirvani’s fault for how the system is today.

“We need to have a chancellor who has authority, need him to do things that may not be politically popular,” Skarphol said. “If you subject the chancellor's job to a political position, it’s a grave mistake.”

The House also killed a proposal to remove the names, locations and missions of eight of the 11 public universities that are currently listed in the state constitution.

House Concurrent Resolution 3008 failed with a 47-45 vote.


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