With potential budget cuts looming, Gov. Burgum suggests cutting operational costs in higher ed
GRAND FORKS—A day after his budget guidelines hinted at future cuts to higher education, Gov. Doug Burgum described part of his vision for the state university system as one of increasingly flexible campuses operating in a more decentralized environment.
"There's lots of things happening in higher ed that require attention, in terms of the business models, the competition, roles of research," Burgum, a former tech executive who has promised to reinvent government, said Thursday, April 19.
The governor's budget guidelines released Wednesday spell out a statewide higher education cut of more than $50 million in state appropriation dollars, a sum that has system leaders on notice. If the reduction goes through as currently written, by the start of the 2019-21 funding period the North Dakota University System will have reduced its budget by about one-third over four years.
With the specter of cuts yet to come, Burgum focused his approach to the NDUS largely on its governance, which, in North Dakota, means the State Board of Higher Education. The governor has led a task force dedicated to the subject over the past few months to study higher ed in other states to see what practices might be brought to the NDUS. The work of that group, Burgum said Thursday, could yield options that might be brought to the Legislature next session, "because some governance changes might require legislative or Constitutional changes."
"We'll see if there's an appetite for changing that after 80 years," he added, "I think it's time to look at it, and if you ask why we're looking at it, we need to have a governance board that allows the universities to be nimble and responsive to what I call demand signals."
Burgum defined those signals as market forces that shape the programming an institution might offer to meet either student or industry demand, an economic approach that takes into account the return on public investment into higher ed.
As part of that, he pointed to schools graduating students who go on to have trouble finding jobs, even while much of the state is lacking workers in critical job fields such as nursing.
He also held up as an example the North Dakota State College of Science "where students have six to eight job offers" but additional state funding opportunities are lacking to expand those economically successful programs.
Part of Burgum's approach to budgetary concerns in the past—and to reallocate funds to the reinvention of government—has been to direct North Dakota agencies to focus on how they might reduce operational costs through greater cooperation with other areas of state government. For NDUS institutions, that also includes public-private partnerships that draw outside dollars onto campus.
More plainly, it also means looking hard at personnel and facilities costs.
Burgum said he left higher ed out of a wider instruction to agencies to reduce full-time equivalent employment levels by 5 percent to let schools "make their own decisions."
Still, he noted that he's seen statistics that show administrative creep in the NDUS had grown at "almost the same rate" as student enrollments during the oil boom years, suggesting that "if you go back 10 years or so, we were getting by with fewer at the top" in terms of staffing.
"If you were building efficiency, you'd probably want to look at that," he suggested.
That rationale also extended to the buildings maintained on campus. The University of North Dakota has a multi-million-dollar list of requests it intends to make of the Legislature in the upcoming session, seeking money to fund building remodels and lab installations.
Speaking generally, the governor said colleges need to examine the fixed costs of maintaining their facilities against the revenue they bring in.
"We're still figuring out what the 'new American university' is, in terms of that mix of costs and revenue," he said, though he acknowledged there's "certainly some need" to address deferred maintenance both at UND and across the system.