Opinion

Omdahl: Higher Education Shouldn’t Be Run By Politicians

Whenever we think there is a problem in government, the first solution that comes to mind is to move the boxes on the organizational chart.
LLOYD OMDAHL
Guest Columnist
If the street sweepers used a scandalous amount of water, change the form of government from commission to mayor-council.  Or if we already have a mayor-council, let’s change the government to a commission form. Actually, this was not uncommon in the early 1900s.
So every time we hear a rumble in the Board of Higher Education, someone suggests abolishing the Board, increasing the size, changing to three administrators, or making the Board accountable to elected officials.
We now have rhubarb in the Board with Chancellor Mark Hagerott caught in the cross hairs. Immediately, we want to make the Board more accountable through elected officials..
The Legislature has spent decades since 1938 trying to make the Board give up its constitutional independence and bow to its political impulses. Every session, the Legislature overreaches its   authority by refusing to recognize that the Board of Higher Education is a fourth branch of government. Innumerable bills are introduced to dictate administrative matters in higher education.
Because of this refusal to recognize the hazards of politicalizing the Board, policymakers and unwitting observers need to hear the old, old story about the origin of its constitutional status. Even though the explanation is found in the 1930s, the nature of politics has not changed and the same reach for power continues in state politics today.
It started when Bill Langer became governor in 1933. He decided that everyone in state government and state institutions should purchase subscriptions to his political newspaper, The Leader. So it was inevitable that his subscription salesperson would show up on the campus of the University of North Dakota expecting a big harvest.
However, when he arrived, he found that the faculty had already decided that they would not buy subscriptions. To make his day even worse, a group of students threw him in the English Coulee.
No doubt, Langer was recollecting this humiliating experience as he nursed grievances against North Dakota State University.  With his Board of Administration in charge of the institutions of higher learning, he had the opportunity to bring the hammer down
Through the Board, Langer fired President Sheppard, four deans and three other veteran professors without explanation.
In his History of North Dakota, Dr. Elwynn Robinson stated that many folks thought Langer wanted to embellish his machine by getting control of the extension service and the experiment station with their payroll of 3,200 and $20 million they handled for North Dakota farmers in the farm program.
The North Central Association quickly revoked NDSU’s accreditation because of political interference in the administration.
In response, the NDSU alumni association initiated a constitutional amendment to take the institutions of higher learning away from the political reach of the Board of Administration and gave it to an independent Board of Higher Education located as far  from politics as possible.
So Chancellor Hagerott is in trouble for not chastising interim UND President Ed Schafer for endorsing a candidate for governor.  In addition, he is also accused by his staff of applying his military style of command and control to management.  Then gender bias has been thrown in for good measure.
None of these are so cataclysmic that the Board itself can’t work through them.  Certainly, they don’t warrant a call for bringing back political control.
As to his military style, that is countercultural in a state that expects everyone to have a say before anything happens. Even so, maybe the institutions of higher learning could use a little command and control in spite of our culture.
Lloyd Omdahl is the former Lt. Governor of the state of North Dakota. He has also been a professor at the University of North Dakota. His column can be found in newspapers all around the state.