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John Hageman, Forum News Service, Published April 05 2014

Grand Forks Senator Holmberg crafting bill to tie higher education funds to teaching

GRAND FORKS – A state senator from Grand Forks is crafting a bill that would require North Dakota’s public universities to dedicate a portion of their state funding for instructional purposes only.

Sen. Ray Holmberg said Friday that the proposal would force universities to be more prudent with new general fund money appropriated by the Legislature, while helping hold down tuition increases.

The percentage that universities may be required to set aside for instruction under the bill could be as high as 80 percent, he said.

Holmberg, a Republican, was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the last legislative session.

He said growth in the number of nonteaching positions throughout the state’s universities is “dramatic compared to what has happened with people who are actually teaching students.” A Legislative Council report showed that the number of “noninstructional” people employed by the North Dakota University System increased by 40 percent between 2003 and 2011, while instructional employees grew by 3.5 percent in that time.

A spreadsheet provided by University System spokeswoman Linda Donlin showed that the number of full-time faculty increased by 12 percent between 2006 and 2013.

She wrote in an email that “research, instruction, academic support, student services, and scholarships and fellowships make up the majority of our total expenses.”

‘Primary purpose’

Had Holmberg’s bill passed last session with a 70 percent mandate, $51 million of the $72.7 million in new general fund appropriations would have been set aside for instructional purposes on North Dakota campuses, he said. Holmberg said the mandate would apply to the amount of the increase in general fund appropriations for operations between bienniums.

“Certainly, instruction is the primary purpose of our institutions and all of our efforts are focused on providing the best education possible for our students,” Donlin said in an email. “Employing quality faculty is of utmost importance.”

Donlin wrote that many “nonteaching” positions are directly related to teaching and research activities of faculty, including researchers, clinicians and academic advisors. She added that there has been a greater need for information technology, institutional research, compliance with government regulations and campus security.

“We believe we have been good stewards of general fund appropriations, and that we’ve been as efficient as possible over the years,” she wrote.

Education quality

Holmberg said mandating instruction dollars is a preferable alternative to having the Legislature set tuition rates. But he said that option “is not off the table.”

Universities across the state will increase tuition by an average of 3.2 percent next year, except Williston State College, which will see a 7.1 percent increase.

Nick Creamer, University of North Dakota student body president, was briefed on the proposal last week by Holmberg. He said he thinks students will be excited about the proposed bill, which he said would improve the quality of education by potentially allowing for more teaching staff, and recruiting talented faculty.

“I don’t want to discount the quality of education in North Dakota as it is,” Creamer said. “However, I don’t think that students are getting an equal amount of return on investment for the rate of increase that they’ve been asked to pay compared to what we may have been asked to pay five or 10 years ago.”

What the bill would define as “instruction” is a bit unclear. That would include faculty salaries, Holmberg said, but also anything used for teaching students. He said his proposal wouldn’t affect funds for construction projects.

He said he’s already talked with “a couple” of legislators about the idea.

“And they think that it’s a way of getting at the issue that legislators believe ... that there is a lot of money on campuses that could be spent more wisely,” he said.