Votes highlight split on North Dakota higher education board expansion

In an email, Skogen said asking voters to grow the State Board of Higher Education would be the best way to “negate” any effort to split up the panel, an idea Gov. Doug Burgum favors but one Skogen worried would be “detrimental” to his institution and others.

“I think anyone living west of I-29 … should be worried about destroying our current system,” he wrote.

Bismarck Republican Rep. Jason Dockter, who voted against the resolution Monday, changed his mind and asked lawmakers to reconsider their actions Tuesday. The resolution passed and voters are now poised to consider the constitutional amendment nearly doubling the membership of the State Board of Higher Education during the 2020 election.

The behind-the-scenes push highlights differing opinions on the proposal among university organizations. Groups supporting the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University have argued that expanding the current board would dilute the research universities’ voice on the panel.

The UND Alumni Association and Foundation wrote an email to members of an advocacy group known as the UND Caucus before Tuesday’s reconsideration vote asking them to make the case against a bigger board.

“Thank you for your efforts in convincing lawmakers that (Senate Concurrent Resolution 4016) is bad policy,” the email said. “It is our belief that the board becomes too unwieldy with 15 members and a larger board doesn’t solve the issues facing higher education today.”

A UND spokesman said President Mark Kennedy hasn’t “actively engaged” in conversations on the proposal. NDSU administrators did not lobby on it, according to a university spokeswoman.

This session’s debate over adjusting the higher education board was generated by a task force created by Burgum, a Republican who campaigned on reinventing government. The task force ultimately recommended splitting up the campuses under multiple boards, an idea that received a cool reception in the Legislature.

After the House rejected a bill outlining a two-board model, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, introduced the resolution expanding the existing State Board of Higher Education’s membership.

The proposal set for the 2020 ballot would grow the board from eight members to 15. It would also lengthen the non-student board members’ terms and prevent their stints from being served consecutively, a move intended to relieve political pressure.

In a statement, Burgum said he “cannot support” the resolution lawmakers passed. He doesn’t have veto power over the proposal, however.

“While incorporating some of the task force’s recommendations, this resolution does not substantially improve the governance structure originally created 80 years ago but rather nearly doubles the size of the existing board and expects different results,” Burgum said.

Dickinson State University President Thomas Mitzel said he supports the move to a larger single board “to an extent” and expressed concerns that splitting up higher education governance would add more layers of bureaucracy. He said board members might be “stretched too thin” under the current system.

Fargo Republican Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, who was a member of Burgum’s task force, argued against a larger single board and said lawmakers should continue studying ideas for adjusting the system.

“I think the fear over the unknown has split the campuses,” she said.

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