You don’t bet your career on institutions you cannot trust

I am going on three years being out of North Dakota and the University of North Dakota. This is probably a good thing. I find what is happening now very discouraging. The present decline in funding for higher education has done damage that will likely take decades to undo. The cutting of programs and faculty and the precipitous decline in funding has eliminated productive programs and led to a decline in faculty morale. This may not be a matter of concern for many citizens so let me put it a different way. Why would high-quality students from Minnesota and high-quality young faculty members from anywhere want to risk careers on institutions that are obviously in decline? You think the Minnesota students don’t matter? These students make up about the same percentage of UND and NDSU student bodies as students from ND. The infrastructure of these institutions requires a critical mass of students to run efficiently and take advantage of the faculty. Size does matter. These are not elite private schools can have the resources to operate with 7-8000 students.

A very similar argument can be made regarding quality faculty. Quality can mean many different things and there are stereotypes that quality in some areas (say research) is related to lower quality in others (say teaching). BTW – this stereotype is not generally accurate – just because you had a professor you did not like who was highly regarded as a researcher does not mean this is the most common connection between research and teaching proficiency. The correlation between research productivity and student evaluations is not negative. Anyway, if I was a young faculty member with a solid research program capable of generating external funding (outside of a couple of areas) and/or likely to lead to significant innovations in a field, I would avoid North Dakota like the plague.

ND has long had higher ed challenges. With 11 or so institutions written into the state constitution, here are too many independent institutions for the size of the state. Think 11 institutions in Omaha for a comparison. There is this notion that somehow the institutions are to work together. I have never understood how this would actually work. For most areas, there is an economy of scale related to issues such as the dependence of instruction and research across departments. Everyone needs to learn to write and needs some exposure to languages, psychology and history. Engineers need advanced math and pre-meds, pre-nurses, pre-PTs and OTs need more than basic biology and chemistry. The better the supporting coursework, the better the odds of competing for limited access to professional training in North Dakota and elsewhere.

Most institutions train educators and this might seem an opportunity to share. Possibly, but note the same requirements for supporting training in fields such as psychology and the importance of quality experiences in the domain students intend to teach I have already mentioned. Then, there is the issue of advanced training – administration, advanced degrees for teachers, counseling, etc. What does it take to provide this training efficiently and does it make sense to have a focus on graduate training and address undergraduate training at different institutions?

The present economic crisis is largely politically made. The higher ed issues I describe have been in place for decades. As a nearly 40-year faculty member, I went through several economic downturns and only one boom period. The 20% cuts and possibly more is unique and caused mostly by political decisions to rely too heavily on oil revenue. If you want to claim credit for the boom as the republicans did when the oil was flowing, you need to own the overcommitment to the easy money in the downturn. The republicans have mismanaged the economy of North Dakota. Institutions such as higher education need to have a funding model that prevents large yearly fluctuations. Sure, downturns can result in no or small raises, but this is very different from cutting productive programs. Whatever the possibilities politicians in North Dakota think are possible, universities operate on other than a state level and must compete with peer institutions able to make long term plans. You don’t bet your career on institutions you can’t trust.

See a related oped from InForum.

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