Hearing From Higher Ed

Legislators meet with NDSU employees at Open Forum

By Kelly Hagen, kelly.hagen@ndunited.org

The North Dakota Legislature and higher education system don’t always see eye to eye. Certain legislators think they know better how to run the system than the State Board of Higher Education or even the university administrators and presidents. It’s a battle every session to get the voices of faculty and staff from our state’s 11 public universities heard by the legislators.

North Dakota United wants to help insert your thoughts and concerns into the decision process for higher education in our state. As part of that process, NDU hosted a Legislative Open Forum on the campus of North Dakota State University on Nov. 29, and invited all faculty and staff at the state’s largest university to come and speak with 15 assembled legislators, and let them know what is happening on the front lines, what areas need attention from our state’s policymakers, and how we can work together to improve the quality of education our universities are offering to the students who arrive on campus each year to learn.

NDSU faculty and staff listen to legislators at Open Forum.

One concern voiced by NDU member Carol Cwiak was the lack of an emergency manager on campus at NDSU. With all of the recent incidents of violence and shootings at college campuses across the country, employees worry about the safety of their colleagues and of the students. Sen. Kyle Davison indicated his support for adding an emergency manager to the staff.

Another member of NDU, Carrie Ane Platt, kicked off a lengthy discussion with the legislators by signaling that faculty shortages are making it very difficult to deliver improvements in student retention and graduation rates. Sen. Davison and Sen. Ron Sorvaag debated different viewpoints on how to measure this data, which helped show that the Legislature isn’t currently of a singular mind on what needs to be measured to determine successes.

Rep. Joshua Boschee, left” listens to Sen. Tim Mathern speak at NDSU Legislative Forum.

Sen. Tim Mathern and Rep. Ron Guggisberg both remarked that it’s important that legislators — particularly those who represent districts outside of Cass County — need to be reminded about NDSU’s land-grant status. Sen. Davison then talked about the need to find efficiencies by working across the N.D. University System and Tri-College to get course offerings, investments of the Legislature in buildings, and the need to look at the compensation structure to keep competiveness.

“In regard to losing staff and faculty,” Sen. Davison said that the university is always going to be losing people, and that salary “does not tell the whole story.” “NDSU needs to work more on campus to problem solve,” he said.

Rep. Joshua Boschee, a North Dakota United member and former employee at NDSU, helped to explain to colleagues what different teaching loads imply and other duties are expected of faculty at NDSU, in addition to classroom time.

Many of the legislators in attendance at the forum stressed the importance of hearing from higher education faculty and staff during the session, as they consider bills that affect their professions. Rep. Kathy Hogan made it clear that legislators NEED to hear our stories. “Without hearing your voice,” she said, “you get drowned out in the melee.” Sen. Sorvaag seconded Hogan, and said that it was incredibly important that legislators hear from their constituents prior to their votes, and that he often listens to feedback from students.

Sen. Tim Mathern speaks at NDSU Legislative Open Forum.

The group urged our members to not presume legislators know what is going on, so reach out and share your thoughts on bills and appropriations. And always include your name and address.

Carol Cwiak challenged the Legislature to do more to support our veterans who are seeking higher education across the state. Multiple legislators seemed intrigued by those ideas, and asked questions about what types of services they need.

NDU member Abby Gold noted the critical importance of benefits to employee retention and recruitment. Rep. Boschee urged our members to monitor the North Dakota Public Employee Retirement System (NDPERS) board for action on public employee benefits, in addition to the Legislature.

Rep. Pam Anderson noted that she sits on the NDPERS board, and she relayed that the group was committed to maintaining the status quo on health insurance. Sen. Sorvaag said that there is no big push to cut health insurance benefits in the Legislature.

The legislators in attendance all seemed to agree that the benefit package currently in place for public employees and higher education faculty and staff is a key ingredient to recruitment and retention.

NDU Assistant Executive Director Ryan Nagle told the group of 38 NDSU employees afterward that he felt the event was successful. “You all left a very strong impression on our legislators,” Nagle said, “and made it clear NDSU employees will be paying attention during the coming session. Now, our next step will be to stay vigilent together during the session and ensure they hear from all of us like they did at our forum.”