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AS I SEE IT

Posted 9/23/09 (Wed)

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

North Dakota’s two largest colleges, North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota, both recently completed the construction of new homes for their college presidents. But to be clear, by most North Dakotan’s standards, these are not just homes. They are showcases. The new home for UND’s president came in with a price tag of $1.2 million, while NDSU’s new home topped out at $1.8 million.
And now the North Dakota Board of Higher Education is rightfully  coming down hard on the officials of both universities for these cost overruns. The rub with the new homes is that the Higher Education Board only approved budgets of $900,000 for each of these homes.
An even bigger rub is that although these new homes were to have been built using private funds, during a recent board meeting it became apparent that public money was used to help defray a portion of these million dollar mansions. In published articles, just the home construction costs at UND came in at $922,700, while NDSU’s costs totaled $1.47 million. But other costs, such as site preparation and landscaping which came mainly from state funds, quickly pushed the finished cost for the new president’s home at UND to $1.2 million, while NDSU’s new president’s home topped out at $1.8 million.
Ridiculous you say? What is ridiculous is that $370,000 in public dollars was spent on landscaping, furnishings and other costs for the NDSU president’s house. To consider that NDSU officials could, and would, approve spending more money on just landscaping and furnishings for the university president’s house than most North Dakotans would ever dream of spending on a house is beyond comprehension.
So now the million dollar question is what is the State Board of Higher Education going to do about it?
Obviously, the board isn’t going to throw the presidents of NDSU and UND out on the street and demolish their homes. But they can, and should, demand that the universities ask their private donors to cough up the extra cash needed to repay the state.
Each university knew the $900,000 budget limit that the Board of Higher Education had set for the construction of the new homes. Each university also knowingly exceeded that limit. Now they need to be held accountable for their actions.
But a more fundamental question facing the board is going to be how do they prevent this practice of overspending from happening again and then being asked to simply “rubber stamp” the university’s action.
At a time when most North Dakotans who have children in college are struggling to find ways to pay for the ever increasing college costs, you can bet they aren’t too keen to think that a portion of their hard-earned tuition dollars are being used by either UND or NDSU to buy such frivolous things like furniture or landscaping for the college president’s new million dollar mansion.
Is a $1.8 million home for a university president too extravagant? Yes it is. The Board of Higher Education knows it. Members of the North Dakota Legislature know it. And so do the taxpayers of North Dakota. And they are not going to forget.