If there’s one certainty in North Dakota politics, it’s that the state’s university system will always want more money.
When things are doing great, they want more money so they can keep doing a great job. When things are going poorly, they want more money so they can do a better job.
Right now we’re in a “things are going poorly” cycle – the Dickinson State University scandal, etc., etc. – and like clockwork State Board of Higher Education President Duaine Espegard is calling for more “investment” (not, you know, spending) into higher ed to make things all better.
“The Dickinson State issue or the controversy over the costs of the UND and NDSU presidents’ homes could have been avoided if the system had been adequately staffed with compliance officers and auditors,” wrote Espegard in a letter to the Grand Forks Herald.
Because there’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a larger budget, right?
But Dickinson state and the other problems in the university system aren’t the result of too little spending. They’re the result of a university system that is several times larger than a state with just 670,000 citizens needs, and is far too independent of oversight from the state’s elected leaders. Our legislature is part-time because governing North Dakota doesn’t require a full-time legislature.
Nor do the higher education needs of North Dakota necessitate a $1.2 billion, 11-campus university system.
Besides, spending on higher education in North Dakota has far outpaced enrollment, going up over 90% since the 2003-2005 biennium while full time equivalent enrollment has increased just 11.5%.
“North Dakota is entering a new era, and it’s imperative that we make good decisions about where we invest the proceeds of our prosperity,” Espegard also writes in his letter. “What better investment than in the education of the generation who will lead our transformation from the state that has been the country’s best-kept secret to the state that quickly is becoming the envy of the world?”
But it’s not at all clear that the increased spending on higher education in North Dakota is actually going to education. Since the 2003-05 biennium, the number of instructional employees at the state’s universities (those actually engaged with teaching) increased just 3.54%. During that same time period, the non-instructional payroll count at the universities increased over 40%:
Also, salary for the university system’s top administrators has risen dramatically over the last decade:
The crux of the problem in North Dakota’s university system is that they’ve gotten away from basics. The university system was created in North Dakota to help educate the state’s students. Now not only has the system itself bloated well beyond that need, but the goal of education seems to be taking a back seat to “economic development” and “research” as evidenced by the increase of non-instructional staff.
It’s time for the state’s university system to get back to basics. And, since both the legislature and the governor lack direct oversight in managing the system, perhaps the best way to spur the bureaucrats like Espegard who are in charge is to stop giving them more money so that they are forced to re-prioritize.