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Former UND dean: Higher-ed cuts hurt North Dakota's quality of life

North Dakotans should be alarmed at the damage being done to the North Dakota University System. Repeated budget cuts are causing campuses to eliminate academic programs, increase class sizes, leave faculty positions vacant and "buy out" experienced faculty and staff to save money, thus removing faculty from the classroom and administrators from leadership positions.

As someone who has been both a faculty member and an academic administrator, I can verify that it takes years, sometimes decades, to build high-quality academic programs. Those programs may be seriously damaged, if not destroyed, in a cycle or two of deep budget cuts and unwise administrative decisions.

Most disappointing, the chancellor and the North Dakota Board of Higher Education, the legal stewards of the system, are failing miserably in their duty. Rather than strongly advocating for adequate funding, they seem to passively accept whatever the Legislature and governor decide.

To make matters worse, the board and chancellor have inflicted more damage on the campuses. Even though all 11 campus presidents and faculty Senates spoke against the change to the tenure policy, the board and chancellor thought they knew better and adopted the policy, thereby weakening tenure.

The old policy had been in place for decades and was not a problem during previous budget reductions. The new policy will make recruiting the best new faculty much more difficult. Faculty who lose their jobs will not have adequate time to find a new job before the next academic year.

The board struck a blow to morale at the very time when the campuses are under assault and demoralized.

Why should North Dakotans care? Because the university system is an asset of enormous value that they own. Successful states get that way because they have successful higher education systems. These cuts will reduce the quality of life in our state for everyone, either directly or indirectly.

Plus, a weaker system of higher education means a slower economic recovery, especially in the 11 communities with campuses.

Let's not forget that the Republican leadership cut income and corporate taxes twice in recent legislative sessions. We know that agriculture and energy prices fluctuate over time. Cutting taxes when tax rates are already low is a deliberate way to starve funding to essential services and state agencies.

My immediate concern is with the future of higher education, but I share a concern for many of our most vulnerable citizens who will suffer because of political leaders' mismanagement.

It is time that North Dakotans realize that much of this pain was not necessary, and in fact has been intentionally planned. I urge Herald readers to let their legislators and the governor know they expect them to do better.

Rice is a former dean of UND's College of Education and Human Development and a retired professor of educational leadership at UND.

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