‘Shameless advocate’ Hagerott navigates future of N.D. university system

He lists meetings with various public and private entities that he and leaders within the system’s schools have been asked to speak at, citing each as a sign that “North Dakota’s leaders recognize that education, training, certificates and degrees are incredibly integrated with the future of our economy and workforce.”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum doesn’t downplay the need for education. But he has given plenty of public critique of the ways in which it reaches students. In recent weeks, he’s placed himself at the forefront of the public conversation on higher ed.

Both men are in agreement on the broad strokes—namely that furthering education is an asset for building the state’s economy, that distance learning through the internet is a growing force and that the higher ed landscape is facing new competition from nontraditional entities.

But even where they might generally agree, their public comments can strike distinctive tones. Statements from Burgum, a tech and urban development entrepreneur who campaigned on a promise to bring innovation to the public sector, have appeared recently in an interview with Forbes magazine published earlier this week.

“You’ve got tenure, you’ve got a faculty senate, you’ve got hundreds of years of tradition,” Burgum told Forbes, responding to a question about an “entrenched constituency” defending the status quo in higher education. “There’s a sort of entitlement thing going on—the sense that because you’ve been around so long you’re always going to be around. Too many leaders in higher ed don’t feel the existential fear that they could actually go out of business.”

Burgum suggested that a sense of urgency could be imparted to higher ed leaders by encouraging a “transformative” approach within all entities. On the flip side, he said he wasn’t interested in meeting with leaders who wanted only to defend their institutions.

Hagerott hadn’t read the Forbes interview by Wednesday afternoon, but he did offer his own interpretation of the “existential fear” statement.

“We have it incumbent as education leaders and faculty to stay current for the sake of our students,” he said. “So I would say the existential fear should be for our students, not for us—we are responsible for helping students and their families go out into this workforce, and for us to do anything less than 100 percent should cause fear.”

Institutional fear aside, the two men have expressed other diverging messages about key features of the state system of higher ed. Hagerott argues that “human contact is a critical part of education,” stressing that face-to-face teaching is a vital part of the university system. While Burgum might not dispute that, he’s quick to emphasize that knowledge—and education—can be accessed wherever there’s an internet connection. Hagerott speaks to a “power of place” among the 11 NDUS campuses and to a sense of belonging that brick-and-mortar institutions offer to their students. Burgum has stated that North Dakotans may “cling” too tightly to “the idea of location,” suggesting that it might not be necessary to maintain all of the state’s campuses as they now exist.

‘Many facets … the public does not see’

Burgum’s comments don’t sit well with some in the NDUS.

“The governor is interfering with higher education in a manner that he should not be,” said Eric Murphy, a UND professor and former president of the North Dakota Council of College Faculties.

Murphy also served as the State Board of Higher Education faculty adviser in 2015 when it hired Hagerott as chancellor. Though he believes Burgum and Hagerott are probably of similar minds in terms of their tech-friendly approach to education, Murphy also sees a “political reality” to the ways the men express themselves in public.

“You’re talking about a very big, large freight train in higher education approaching another freight train that is the governor and the Legislature if he has them on his side, and these are on the same track heading towards each other,” he said. “I think (Hagerott) is trying to be the guy who’s trying to keep that collision from occurring and if it does occur, to manage the outcome.”

Murphy’s analogy is set in the context of a system of schools still rearranging themselves after steep budget cuts handed down by the state. He says there was probably some fat to cut in school budgets, but mostly he’s concerned the losses in funding and personnel will cause a “serious backwards slide” in the quality of the NDUS.

With that in mind, Murphy thinks the governor’s public remarks show a lack of understanding, both in the teaching process specifically and in higher ed as a whole.

He also thinks the chancellor should be the one to “take control of the narrative and by all means influence it,” a strategy he sees as currently lacking.

Outgoing SBHE Chair Kathleen Neset also thinks Burgum’s words have helped set the tone for the discussion of higher ed in North Dakota, but she disagrees that Hagerott has given up his pulpit. Neset interprets Burgum’s statements as issuing a challenge for the NDUS to evolve and, so far, she’s been happy to see that.

“I like a fresh look at it, at higher education in North Dakota, but I also like the idea that he thinks bigger and takes in the national picture of higher education in this country, the workforce needs and how they keep on changing and evolving,” Neset said.

She added that Burgum is probably more outspoken about higher ed than past governors, a point she chalked that up to broad changes in academia itself and in the state’s workforce needs.

Despite the differences in public expression, Neset believes the “door is wide open between the system office and the governor’s office.”

The university system continues to seek a balance between adapting to new pressures and maintaining academic tradition. As it does so, Neset said the two executives are “very aligned” in their vision for higher ed, particularly in the area of introducing more digital delivery to the learning process.

As for Hagerott, she believes there’s a “fine balance that the chancellor needs to walk between being outspoken and quietly doing his work.”

“I think there are many facets of communication between the governor and the chancellor that the public does not see—and that’s good,” Neset said. “I believe that the less you hear from the (SBHE) and the chancellor and the more you hear from student success, students making the front page of our media, then higher education and the chancellor are doing their job.”