GRAND FORKS -- Here is an understatement for this week: Higher education is facing a time of great change. Another might be, higher education in North Dakota is under great stress. The first does not necessarily lead to the second, but the second makes the first almost certain.

First, there’s leadership change. Three of the state’s 11 public colleges and universities will have new leadership: UND, Dickinson State University and Bismarck State College, though at DSU Steve Easton has served as interim president and at UND Andrew Armacost has been on campus frequently since being hired over the winter and before his June arrival.

The board itself has a new member. Danita Bye was named to the board last week, following an unusually long application process. In a news release announcing the appointment, Gov. Doug Burgum cited Bye’s “deep understanding of the business sector and thoughtful insights into the new generation of learners.” She’s a member of the North Dakota Petroleum Council’s board, author of a book on millennials and partner in the family’s ranch in Mountrail County. On a personal note, she and I graduated from the same school. She entered first grade the year I graduated from high school.

Two more openings will occur July 1. Former board chair Don Morton is leaving the board after two terms and eight years. He’s term-limited. A five-member committee has begun accepting applications. The student member, who has a vote, will be new July 1, as well. The North Dakota Student Association will suggest a member.

The November election could bring further change. Voters will decide the fate of a constitutional amendment, offered by the 2019 legislative session, that would enlarge the board from eight to 15 members. Insiders think that would be unyielding, but there are fewer higher education insiders than there are voters, and voters will decide.

These pending changes add a level of uncertainty, but they seem puny in the face of the ongoing crisis facing higher education in North Dakota and elsewhere.

The state’s campuses will reopen for the fall semester. This is a source of stress, both because the course of the coronavirus pandemic is uncertain, and because every campus has a share of vulnerable people. Colleges are preparing for enrollment declines, which are inherently threatening, because tuition provides a big chunk of funding for higher education. So do fees, including parking fees and fees for room and board, all profit centers for campuses and therefore ways to supplement dwindling tax revenues.

The coronavirus is at least partly responsible for the current crisis, which may cut state funding to campuses by as much as 15%, as Burgum’s budget recommendations suggest. This will be the second big whack at higher education expenditures this decade. The last came in 2015, after oil prices collapsed. Oil revenue is partly responsible this time around. Prices have collapsed and production has fallen.

The temptation will be to slash away at state support for higher education in order to preserve funding for elementary and secondary education and health and human services, the others of the Big Three tax eaters in the state.

But that would be the wrong approach.

An economy dependent on a single tax source desperately needs diversification, and higher education is a tool to make that happen. The colleges and universities themselves are economic drivers in their communities, but they serve other, grander purposes. The colleges train the state’s evolving workforce, and retrain workers as demands and the economy changes. Work done at the state’s research universities helps build a more broad-based economy, a slow process but one that must be pursued.

Beyond these economic contributions, the campuses provide vibrancy, entertainment, culture and sporting events. Then there are the cultural and social aspects of the state’s campuses. They bring people together, helping acculturation and building citizenship, not to mention diversifying the gene pool.

For all these reasons, higher education should be considered an investment and not a burden. I’m borrowing these points from Chancellor Mark Hagerott, who outlined them in an interview soon after the board voted to reopen the state’s campuses.

In a telephone conversation Monday, Bye welcome the challenge and agreed that the three-pronged crisis – structure, disease and financing – presents an opportunity to rebuild the state’s higher education system.

The system is not perfect. Far from it. It is entrenched in the state constitution, and big changes are difficult. The constitution requires institutions in specific communities, but it doesn’t prohibit consolidating programs or even administrations, however, and those ideas may gain some traction as the board, the Legislature and the state’s budget builders tackle the challenges facing the higher education system.

Follow-up

Last week’s understatement came in an interview with Chet Pollert, leader of Republicans in the North Dakota House of Representatives. He said the involvement of a political action committee tied to the governor would make things “very difficult” next session if the incumbent, Jeff Delzer, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, were to be defeated. Burgum and Delzer have been at odds; the Dakota Leadership PAC aims to defeat him as part of its mission to advance the governor’s policy agency.

Burgum himself isn’t guilty of understatement. He put another $195,000 into the Dakota Leadership PAC last week.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.