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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published April 18 2013

Lawmakers hope for one last vote on higher ed structure

BISMARCK – A proposal to eliminate the State Board of Higher Education was shot down twice Thursday, with lawmakers hoping it comes back up today.

House Concurrent Resolution 3047 failed 24-23 in the Senate on Thursday afternoon, and an attempt to reconsider the vote failed later in the day by a 24-22 vote.

The resolution would allow the voters to create a full-time three-member commission, rather than the current eight part-time members.

If passed, the resolution would have put the proposal up to a statewide vote because it requires a change of the state constitution, which grants the board governance over the state’s 11 public higher education institutions.

Those pushing the proposal continually say the state board has had too many problems with the state government and its part-time board can’t handle the $3 billion industry higher education has become.

Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, said Thursday the historic tension the state board has had with the Legislature warrants the opportunity for voters to make the decision on a new higher education governance structure.

“It’s inherent in our responsibility as elected officials to have involvement in higher education,” he said. “I am convinced, across this state, campus officials, faculty and staff are very concerned about the here and now (of the state board), and it’s our job to look forward with an option to give the voters an opportunity to voice their opinion.”

There are no other options left to restructure the state board since the resolution failed, but the bill could be reconsidered today. Other ideas for replacing the board had been killed earlier in the session.

Sen. Larry Robinson, D-Valley City, opposed the resolution, arguing that it is trying to fix something that is not entirely broken, as the board and University System have many good things going for them now.

“The governance of any system is a challenge; this is not supposed to be easy. If it would be, we wouldn’t be talking about it today,” he said during floor discussion. “No matter what happens, we’ll be back criticizing that commission and will continue our struggles.”

Sen. Margaret Sitte, R-Bismarck, voted in favor of the resolution, but said the idea doesn’t address the real problems.

“Twenty years ago, we weren’t having these issues when we had people who were more responsive to the entire system,” Sitte said. “Maybe the whole chancellor system is broken, I’m not sure the whole board is broken.”

The system’s chancellor, Hamid Shirvani, has been criticized since he took over the position in July for not listening to campus leaders and students as he began to create new policies and programs for the system.

Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Bismarck, asked the Senate to reconsider its earlier vote. Erbele originally voted against the resolution, but after listening to a few other lawmakers, he said he realized the issue is large enough that it needs to be put to a statewide vote.

“We have had our conflicts with the current system. If this is passed by the Legislature and voters, it will give us a fresh look at higher ed,” he said. “It seems to be an issue every session since I’ve been here.”

The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said he likes the new three-member commission proposal and, while he hasn’t spent much time looking at the recent changes, will push to get it passed in the House if it makes it through the Senate.

“I hope the votes are out there and common sense is out there to not look at personalities,” he said, adding that lawmakers should not vote either way solely based on their opinions toward Shirvani.

The original resolution that was passed by the House in mid-March eliminated the board structure and would create a Department of Higher Education that would have been administered by one director who was appointed by the governor and served a three-year term.

If the resolution is brought back for another vote, and passes, lawmakers will take the two ideas to a conference committee to seek common ground.

Carlson said the change to his resolution will provide a central governance structure that can handle the growing higher education system.

“The best thing you can have is discourse,” he said about the three members with varying backgrounds. “It makes a better system.”