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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Mayville State's future

Some thoughts on Mayville State's financial difficulties (congratulations to The Forum, by the way, for its well-reported scoop on Wednesday):

First, this is a very old issue in North Dakota, with roots that go back to the earliest days of statehood. "The following public institutions of the state are permanently located at the
places hereinafter named, each to have the lands specifically granted to it by the United States in the Act of Congress approved February 22, 1889," begins Article IX, Section 12 of the North Dakota Constitution. It not only mandates "a state normal school at the city of Mayville, in the county of Traill," but also locates the seat of government in Bismarck and state university in Grand Forks, among other pronouncements.

Here's Elwyn Robinson on the effects of that clause, in his "History of North Dakota" -- published, remember, in 1966:

"Unfortunately, North Dakota had too many institutions of higher education, more than it needed or could adequately support, an excess which sprang from each large town's desire to have one. Once established, the newer schools sought to expand their programs, to crowd into fields already occupied by older institutions. So they fought among themselves for students and appropriations. There were not enough of either to go around. ... In 1913-1914, North Dakota was ninth among the states in per capita expenditures for higher education, but overexpansion was robbing it of the quality of education its expenditure could have bought."

So, does this mean it's time for North Dakota to "bite the bullet" and close Mayville State?

Absolutely not! In fact, the long history of this issue works in Mayville State's favor, because it makes it much more likely, not less, that the state will step in to help.

Basically, this isn't the first time a North Dakota campus has experienced financial difficulties. Back in 1895, it was UND's turn. Here's Robinson again: "When in 1895, Gov. Roger Allin's veto of appropriations threatened the existence of the university, (UND board of trustees member William) Budge led in raising, by private subscription, the $26,000 which saved it. On one occasion, he paid its fuel bill ($700) out of his own pocket." And other institutions also have had their at-times serious problems over the years.

The bottom line is that the state Legislature and North Dakotans aren't about to let one rough patch spell the end of a constitutionally mandated state institution. One way or another, the Legislature almost surely will step in to help, especially considering that the state economy today is unusually strong. The landslide vote a few years ago to reaffirm the constitutional mandates fits in with this analysis.

But Mayville faculty, staff and students mustn't use this prediction as an excuse to relax. For there is one outcome that could ultimately threaten the school's survival: Continued financial problems in years to come. Sooner or later, the state's patience could run out if Mayville State doesn't turn its financial and enrollment situations around. North Dakotans don't mind subsidizing success, but I don't sense much appetite in the state for subsidizing continuing, long-term failure.

So: What Mayville boosters should focus on right away is hiring the strongest possible president for the school. (The current president is leaving to work at a university out of state.) The new president's leadership will be absolutely critical in determining the university's future. Can he or she succeed?

Well, Medora, N.D., bordered on being a ghost town in 1940 but is the state's biggest tourist attraction today, thanks in large part to the famous Harold Schafer. Of course Mayville's new president can succeed, if he or she has the vision and drive to make the college succeed. Leadership will tell the tale.

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