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University System seeks $84 million budget increase

BISMARCK -- North Dakota University System officials are requesting an additional $84 million of state funding for the next two years, an increase Chancellor Hamid Shirvani said is needed to keep up with increasing costs and to support the "big agenda" of the system and the state's 11 public colleges and universities.

If approved by legislators during the session that begins Jan. 8, the additional funding would bring general fund spending for the NDUS operational budget to nearly $600 million -- a 16.3 percent increase compared with the $516 million of higher education funding for the current biennium that ends June 30.

The proposal also requests $146 million in capital expenditures to support 14 campus construction projects. The proposal includes $38.5 million for the first phase of a proposed new building for the UND's School of Medicine and Health Sciences and $30 million for a new classroom and laboratory building at North Dakota State University.

Shirvani said the state has made strides in funding its institutions in recent years. Still, he said more investment is needed to bring UND and NDSU to the next level while increasing workforce development at the two-year schools and improving the overall quality and outcomes of higher education.

"We have a golden opportunity in this state to really make a mark," he said. "Do we have a good system of higher education? Yes, of course we do. But do we want it the best, and do we have the opportunity to do so? Yes, we have absolutely the most fantastic opportunity."

The proposal will face its first test Wednesday morning when Gov. Jack Dalrymple delivers his 2013-2015 executive budget address to legislators. It is expected to show which higher education plans he supports and guide legislative discussion next year.

Serious about system

Shirvani said the higher education proposal calls for more general fund money to cover the costs of inflation, regular maintenance, and salary and retirement increases. Those costs alone account for more than $25 million, or about 30 percent of the $84 million increase.

The remaining $59 million would fund several state priorities, including $25 million for the campuses and $5.5 million to hire extra security officers at the 11 schools.

Shirvani said the item that has drawn the most attention is his $8.5 million request to double the size of the NDUS office staff.

He said the money would recover the $3 million of cuts to the central office legislators handed down in recent years. The funding also would allow the system to hire new auditors, academicians to help shape systemwide policies and attorneys who could handle legal services for most of the campuses.

The goal, Shirvani said, is to reduce duplication of services among the 11 schools and run a more efficient system.

"The question is, are we serious about building a system or not?" he said. "If you're serious, that's not very much in comparison to the $1.6 billion budget of the system."

Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, said Shirvani is an "incredibly visionary" leader who was hired to the top spot in the NDUS earlier this year to reform higher education. Still, he said Shirvani's budget proposal could be a tall order for legislators because the perception of higher education in the state has been "severely damaged" in recent years.

"It's going to take a lot of convincing to accomplish everything that the chancellor wants," Skarphol said. "But I think we need to afford him the luxury of listening to his vision and trying to make an intelligent decision."

The budget proposal also includes two ranked lists of campus construction priorities that total 14 projects with a request for $146 million of state funding.

The top-ranked priority is a new $124 million medical school at UND to handle a projected enrollment increase. Shirvani said officials settled on a $38.5 million request for the next biennium to start the first phase.

A new science, technology, engineering and math classroom and lab building at NDSU that President Dean Bresciani said is "critically important" also is on the list. If approved, the new building would move instructional activities out of cramped spaces that are 40 to 100 years old.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587