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John Hageman, Forum News Service, Published December 15 2013

Some legislators think proposed higher ed amendment would limit academic freedom

GRAND FORKS – Voters will have the opportunity to change the structure of higher education governance next year when a constitutional amendment appears on the ballot.

But some legislators in Grand Forks are raising concerns that the proposed constitutional amendment puts academic freedom at risk and diminishes the authority of university presidents.

The amendment, which will appear on the November 2014 general election ballot, would replace the current eight-member volunteer State Board of Higher Education with a commission of three full-time members.

If passed by voters, it would become effective in July 2015.

Academic freedom?

Sen. Mac Schneider’s concerns with the amendment aren’t so much about what it creates, but what it takes out of the state constitution.

The Grand Forks Democrat, whose district includes much of the University of North Dakota area, pointed to a section of the current constitution stating the board “shall have full authority over the institutions under its control with the right, among its other powers, to prescribe, limit, or modify the courses offered at the several institutions.”

“That allows higher education a measure of independence when it comes to the administration of higher ed,” Schneider said.

Schneider argued that removing the language threatens universities’ academic freedom and gives legislators the ability to “dictate” things like course selection.

“And so, the Legislature would set the direction for higher ed … and the commission would execute those laws as set forth by the Legislature,” Schneider said.

But Sen. David Hogue, a Minot Republican who carried the bill to put the amendment on the ballot, dismissed those concerns as a “red herring.” He said the amendment simply makes clear the commission has to adhere to laws passed by the state.

Hogue added that legislators have largely stayed out of decisions that should be left to the board.

“You’re always going to have this idea I think that the Legislature will meddle,” Hogue said. “But I think the Legislature does a good job of staying out of issues that are clearly not at the policy level.”

Similarly, Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, said the amendment would not affect academic freedom. He said the amendment is aimed at streamlining the body overseeing the state’s higher education institutions.

“I just don’t believe academic freedom is going to be challenged by a change in governing structure,” he said.

A full-time job

Hogue said the job of overseeing the state’s universities requires commissioners’ full-time attention. He said several people have stepped away from the post in recent years because of the time commitment.

“That’s a demanding job,” Hogue said.

But Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, worries that by making the job of university oversight a full-time position, university presidents will lose authority. She said presidents are better able to understand issues at their respective universities.

“I think (board members) perceive, rightly, that their job is to set general broad policies for the institution,” Triplett said. “My concern is that if you got three full-time people … that they’re going to effectively run the institutions and there won’t be any space left for institutional presidents.”

Triplett added that the amendment is “the wrong response” to the controversy surrounding the board this year and the ouster of former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani. But Grindberg said efforts to reform higher education governance predated the events of the past year.

Despite Schneider’s and Triplett’s concerns, UND is not taking a position on the amendment, according to spokesman Peter Johnson. Kirsten Diederich, president of the State Board of Higher Education, also declined to discuss whether she supports or opposes the ballot measure.

“I believe North Dakotans will do their research and make the right choice for higher ed in North Dakota,” she said.