North Dakota Needs To Put The State Board Of Higher Education On The Ballot

The Spirit Lake Sioux tribe will be trying to refer the recent repeal of the Fighting Sioux law by putting the question on the statewide ballot in June of 2012 or, short of that (because 13,000+ signatures is a lot to collect in 90 days) put the Sioux nickname in the state constitution with a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November of 2012.

Good on them. Both the wishes of the Sioux Indians, and the North Dakota people in general, have been ignored on the issue of late. It’s time for us to have our say. But while we’re doing that, we should put the State Board of Higher Education on the ballot too.

Not just because of their dishonest double-dealing on the Sioux nickname issue, but because the university system can no longer be trusted to govern themselves.

Certainly the legislature doesn’t hold the respect of the university system. At NDSU, President Dean Bresciani and the State Board of Higher Education thumbed their noses at legislative caps on tuition increases and hit students with an 8.8% hike. Bresciani and other university officials have consistently claimed that they’re underfunded, blaming the legislature for it, despite massive increases in state appropriations.

When the legislature attempted to look into NDSU’s use of a private airplane, the use of which by the university elite costs North Dakota taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, university officials tried to lie and claim the plane wasn’t actually owned by the university proper but rather the university’s foundation. Which was false.

And that wasn’t effort to mislead the legislature made by the university system this year. At Dickinson State University, where the president had to be fired for inflating enrollment numbers with fake students, the faculty was instructed by Chancellor Bill Goetz (with the knowledge of SBHE President Grant Shaft) not to disclose the university’s problems during the legislative session.

Because if the legislature, our elected governing body, had found out what was going on at DSU it might have impacted the higher ed budgets and other legislation they were considering, right? Oh, by the way, when an NBC News reporter named Brian Howell started questioning the Board of Higher Education on the DSU story they froze him out with SBHE President Grant Shaft telling him nobody in the university system would be talking to him any more.

And they must have kept their promise, because the story died and Howell doesn’t seem to be covering higher education issues for NBC affiliate KFYR any more.

How can the legislature exercise oversight of the university system when not only is the university system itself set up as a fourth branch of government, not accountable to any other branch of the government in any legal sense, but also when the university officials themselves don’t act in good faith in their governance?

The university system squanders our tax dollars, from the massively over-budget geothermal project at Minot State University to the massively over budget president’s mansion at NDSU.

If we had some actual leadership in this state, and not just a bunch of opportunists hoping to ride the state’s oil boom and resulting strong economy to near permanent incumbency, somebody would be calling out the university system. But nobody does, and as a result we taxpayers and, worse, our kids who are going to these universities are paying a heavy price.

Maybe it’s time for the taxpayers to take the matter into their own hands and reform the university’s leadership into something more accountable to the people.

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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  • Fight Czech

    Arent the articles in the ND Constitution amendable?  As out of control as the Education leadership is,  why havent I seen more attempts to put them in there place????

    • Rob

      A lot of it is because the higher ed system has an army of lobbyists, and the legislature is only part time.  It’s not hard for the higher ed system to bamboozle our legislature, sadly.

      And we haven’t had a lot of leadership from the governor’s office on the matter.  Hoeven, for instance, was too busy porking up the universities with his “Centers of Excellence” program.

  • Rick Olson

    Correction, Rob.  According to the Secretary of State’s website:

    Initiated and referred measures need signatures equal to 2 percent of the state’s population as of the last federal Census (threshholds current as of the 2010 Census).  Initiated constitutional measures require signatures equal to 4 percent of the state’s population as of the 2010 Census. Constitutional amendment propositions need the higher number. Statutory Initiatives and Referendums only need just over 13,000 (13,452 to be exact) valid signatures to make the ballot.   Initiated Constitutional Measure Propositions need 26,904 valid signatures in order to make the ballot.

    • Rob

      Ah, good point.  Thanks Rick.

  • Ratbite

    THANK YOU SENATOR HOEVEN & THE NORTH DAKOTA REPUBLICAN PARTY FOR OUR CURRENT BOARD OF HIGHER(meaning above the law) EDUCATION. John “Big Government”Hoeven & the Republican controlled legislature is responsible for our current above the law Board of Higher education. Just a further example of why North Dakota conservatives need a third “real conservative” third party to support as the Republcians continually slap us in the face. 

  • fredlave

    I’m still trying to figure out why ND needs a Board of Higher Education. I’d feel better if each college dealt directly with the legislature.

    • ec99

      It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.  Though I doubt they could foresee it would become another bureaucracy with membership limited to political cronies.

  • Lynn Bergman

    Organizations wishing to become involved in an effort to draft a constitutional measure to reign in higher education…please get in touch with me and perhaps with enough support we’ll git ‘er dun!


    • Rick Olson

      I’m afraid your effort will be an effort in futility.  The higher education system in North Dakota enjoys and jealously guards its status as a constitutionally-protected entity.  I think North Dakota is the only state in the country in which the higher education system has such protection, and therefore, is legally accountable to no one, as its own separate fourth branch of government. In North Dakota, we have the three main branches of government: Executive, Legislative and Judicial. We also throw in a fourth branch of government for good measure: Higher Education. 

      Many attempts have been made to strip higher education of this constitutional protection.  There have been a number if initiatives put before the voters to for example remove the names of the eleven institutions of higher education from the constitution.  All of these issues went to the voters and were soundly defeated.  The most no votes of course came from the communities in which one of the state’s colleges and universities are located.

      In fact, the only legislative oversight of any weight is the fact that all nominees for the Board of Higher Education do face confirmation proceedings in the state Senate.  In fact, they are the only gubernatorial nominees that have to go before the Senate for approval.  No other of a governor’s nominees, appointment of cabinet members, judges, no one need face state Senate scrutiny.  Only nominees for the board of higher education must go through confirmation proceedings by the state Senate.

      Of course, the leaders of the higher education system in North Dakota including the chancellor and the presidents of the institutions come out in full force during the regular sessions of the Legislature, particularly come appropriations time. They will also make themselves available to answer questions of individual lawmakers during a session and in the interim period between sessions. However, they are doing so merely out of courtesy. They are not legally required because of this constitutional protection, to answer to any member of the Legislature, or to anyone for that matter. Not even the governor. The only person that the presidents report to directly is the duly-appointed Chancellor of Higher Education, and that individual is appointed by the board of higher education. So, you can see how the “buddy buddy” system has firmly entrenched itself in higher education in North Dakota. It really is a wonder why the system isn’t even more corrupt as it is now?

      Rob is correct with his observation in that the North Dakota Legislature is only a part-time legislature — it meets for only 80 days every other year. When the Legislature is in session in Bismarck for its bi-annual regular session, lawmakers struggle to cram in two years of the state’s affairs and business into an iron-clad 80 day schedule. Yes, lawmakers are involved in interim committee work and studies over the 20 months that the Legislature is not in session, but the interim study committees meet infrequently between sessions. Therefore, the higher education system can fairly easily run roughshod over the legislative branch whenever it cares to.

      If your petition comes my way, I’ll definitely sign it.  However, it’s going to be a tall order to get the some 27,000 signatures that will be needed to put this on the ballot.  I wish you all the luck there is, because the higher education system in North Dakota truly does need to become accountable in the hugest way.

      My poersonal take is that the higher education system should disband its current centralized system and the Board of Higher Education should be disbanded. Then a Board of Regents/Trustees could be appointed for each college and university. In other words, UND, NDSU and the rest of the colleges would be more or less self-governing on a day to day basis and not have to pass everything through the central North Dakota Higher Education System.

      • Camsaure

        We need to keep the pressure on them and not give in to their antics. Everyone needs to actively find,sign and promote this petitiion.

      • RCND

        So we just quit trying? What if we did that when the British were running things back in the infancy of this nation? The bottom line is it does not matter how many times you get knocked down, its how many times you get back up and keep swinging that matter

    • ec99

      I admire your bravery Lynn by putting your phone number on a blog.  Have to agree with Rick, though.  ND’s immense aversion to any kind of change renders this sort of action doomed.

    • RCND

      Get ahold of Rob…. he may be aware of a parallel effort