It’s Time To Ask Voters Again About Constitutional Protections For Universities


Earlier this week I wrote about HCR3008, introduced by Rep. Mark Dosch, which would remove from the state constitution mentions of eight of the state’s eleven college campuses.

Because those campuses, and their intents/locations, are named in the state constitution they existence is required by law. Meaning that regardless of enrollment declines, performance problems or outright fraud (such as in the case of the “diploma mill” controversy at Dickinson State University), the universities can’t be closed without amending the state constitution.

The Grand Forks Herald editorial today is very much in favor of keeping that constitutional protection in place, which isn’t surprising. The paper takes a very “do no wrong” position on higher ed, and their default position is to keep the university as far outside of the authority of any elected leader as possible.

But the Herald hangs its case on a 1998 statewide vote on a similar resolution which saw voters overwhelmingly supporting keeping the universities in the constitution:

In 1998, that purpose was clear: It was to remove the pesky constitutional protection so some number of the colleges could be closed.

But North Dakotans declared in no uncertain terms that they rather liked the protection, thanks. And no wonder: Thanks to the grounding of the schools in constitutional firmament, North Dakota has a statewide network of not only healthy colleges but also healthy communities.

“Healthy communities.” That’s the operative term, because it’s far from clear that many of these universities are healthy. A recent report put together by the Chronicle of Higher Education showed abysmal spending and graduation rates, particularly for North Dakota’s smaller universities.

In truth, the argument in favor of the constitutional protection for the universities is about the same one we hear against closing military bases that have clearly outlived their strategic usefulness. Much as with the military bases, the communities where the universities are situated enjoy the influx of commerce that comes along with the faculty, administrators, students and support staff. Thus, they support keeping the universities open not to promote education but to promote the economic interests of locals.

That’s no way to run a university system.

Voters may have rejected removing universities from the state constitution in 1998, but a lot has changed since 1998. It’s become clear, both nationally and in North Dakota, that we have a higher education bubble. The cost of a college degree is growing almost exponentially while the value of a college degree stagnates. North Dakota’s four-year universities were recently patting themselves on the back for moving six-year graduation rates (for four year degrees) above the 50% mark. North Dakota’s two-year campuses were among the best in the nation in graduation rates, but are still graduating just one third of students after three years.

I suspect that many North Dakotans would feel very differently about constitutional protections for the campuses in 2013 than they did in 1998. Of course, maybe I’m wrong, but what’s the harm in asking? Why not pass HCR3008, and let the voters decide?

I think the Herald and other apologists for the university system are afraid of what the outcome might be.

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • ec99

    Another of Tom Dennis’ hundreds of typical editorials: choose a position, scrape up whatever you can to defend it, and ignore everything that militates against it. In this case, the argument is economic. Keep the schools for the money they inject, not because they are legitimate institutes of higher learning. He never bothered to review the catalogs of the 7 smaller schools to see what a pitiful curriculum they offer, nor how weak the major requirements are. In some cases, the faculty of ND’s big city high schools are more qualified than what Valley City and Mayville have to offer. It was indeed clever to protect them by putting them in the Constitution; as universities they’d be eliminated immediately.

    • Rob

      What Dennis seems to be admitting in his editorial is that parochial and political interests are more important than the mission of the university system, which is education.

      • ec99

        “Mission of education” is the dog and pony show presidents feed to naive high school seniors and their parents. The mission now is bloated administrations and $2 million+ contracts to hockey coaches. You want education you radically change the way things are now.

        • $8194357

          A crony capitalist money making ponzi designed to push an intolerant zero policy agenda to old fashioned rule of law society.

          • two_amber_lamps

            Aka a Liberal Fascist Mill…

        • Rob

          Well, the mission of the state schools was to provide a low-cost education. The mission now is sports teams. And public/private partnerships. And “centers of excellence.” And “research” (read: consuming federal grant dollars). Oh, and they graduate some students too.

  • Waski_the_Squirrel

    I don’t mind state-funded universities, but I don’t understand why they are in the constitution. I’m also a bit puzzled by how close together they are in the eastern part of the state. Mayville and Valley City are way too close to Grand Forks and Fargo to justify their existence as state schools.

    Despite their issues, I do like the idea of having state schools spread across the state. Dickinson needs to clean up its act, but I would keep it open. Minot has some issues, but I would keep it open as well. I like the geographic distribution of the two-year schools.

    Just curious: are the tribal schools state funded? I never thought to wonder about that until just now.

    • ec99

      “I don’t understand why they are in the constitution.”
      They are in the constitution to keep them from being shut down. ND does not produce enough high school graduates to populate 11 campuses. UND and NDSU already have more than 50% out-state students. The small schools attract from about a 50 mile radius, which will eventually mean no enrollment. The DSU fiasco was all about getting people from China to boost the numbers. As long as money is what runs higher ed, the small schools will give away diplomas i order to exist.

    • Rob

      From what I understand the tribal schools are almost entirely federally funded.

    • Rob

      And we can debate about which schools should and should not be closed, but the point is that we’re kept from having that debate by the schools being named in the state constitution.

      Let’s remove that hurdle so we can have the debate.

      As to why they’re in the constitution in the first place, that’s how the state’s framers bought votes for the constitution. The colleges, the state hospital, the veterans home, etc., etc. were all placed where they are in the state constitution to buy off votes from delegates in those areas.

      It wasn’t done for the good of the state. It was done to satisfy parochial politics.

    • John_Wayne_American

      DSU should be a secong High school with a health, tech, and oil related NDSCS branch on the same campus. Same with Williston State. actually Williston State should just be a second High School for at least the next 10 years to prevent building a 70 million dollar school that could be empty in 2025

    • John_Wayne_American

      Why Mayville Wapeton Fargo and GF?? Looka at a maap with populations back at statehood, Mayville was a big city back then.. I’m not sure Minot even had rails laid there yet. Williston was just a trading post village.

      • Conservative_Egghead

        The colleges at Williston, Dickinson, Minot, Bismarck, and Devils Lake weren’t in the original Constitution (Williston, Minot, and Bismarck still aren’t mentioned in the current language). Dickinson and Minot were added in later, and Ellendale was taken out in the 1970s. My favorite example of flagrant vote-buying is Bottineau; we have a state forestry school in a state with no forests. Mayville and Valley City State (two useless institutions; they offer nothing that isn’t available at UND and/or NDSU) are also especially superfluous.

        What we should have done is copy the system used in Wyoming; if you want any degree at the Bachelor’s level or higher, you have to go to Laramie. All of the other public institutions in the state are community and/or technical colleges.

  • flamemeister

    “Nearly 63% of more than 400 of America’s largest and most prestigious colleges maintain policies that seriously violate First Amendment principles.”

    Screw ‘em.

  • Kevin Flanagan

    What’s the point of paying to educate a bunch of people who will take their education out of the state?

    • Rob

      That’s a fair point. The dollar amounts we spend on tuition waivers for out of state students are ridiculous.

      • John_Wayne_American

        it shoud be a balanced waiver sysytem, based on the previous year, if 325 ND students got waivers from MN, then 325 MN students get waivers in ND same with any other state we exchange with.. or does that make too much sense??

    • Kevin Flanagan

      Tuition should be subjected to the free market.

    • ec99

      The point springs from a two-pronged problem: not enough ND students for 11 campuses and low ND salaries. With some majors, such as aviation, there are no jobs.