North Dakota State: a year we’d like to see

By Ross F. Collins, associate professor of communication

As the year comes to a close, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the many changes of the past year. What an amazing year it was for North Dakota universities! When we began spring semester in January, as you probably recall, university students and staff wondered what to expect from the state and from the university. Money there was. Even the governor admitted the state had a treasury bursting at the seams. But few seemed to expect students would benefit much. After all, said the politicians, wasn’t North Dakota tuition, on average, lower than at other universities around the country? Students should be greatful if tuition didn't increase the usual 10 percent a year.

But students were paying more for services that many claimed were delivering less. To commemorate Martin Luther King Day, NDSU student senators in January resolved that they too “had a dream” of freedom from ever-rising university costs. That declaration brought ridicule and even a “Leafy Spurge” award from the local newspaper. The mood on campus ran to somber and cynical.

Free transcripts, cheaper books

But what a difference a year can make! As we recall, it began in February, when the registrar’s office unexpectedly announced it would drop its recent policy of charging students for providing official transcripts. While the $15 charge had not been high compared to many fees students expected to pay, “We just felt it was unfair to require yet one more fee of our departing graduates,” said an office spokesperson. "Students need these transcripts to apply for jobs and graduate school. It’s the least we can do."

The announcement did not particularly excite anyone at the time. But who could have guessed it would just be the start of a year in which student concerns would actually be addressed? Of course, the university’s bookstore was not directly responsible for the Federal Trade Commission’s decision to cap prices of textbooks to a percentage directly tied to costs of production, and to require publishers to demonstrate clear need before publishing a new edition of a textbook at intervals more frequent than five years. As the market responded to these mandates, NDSU’s Bookstore manager marveled, “Can you believe it? There was a time when most textbooks actually cost more than $50!” Students now pay the average hardcover rate of $25, and that’s before the bookstore’s 30 percent discount on its bestselling texts. Explained the manager, “We are trying to serve the students as best we can to reflect our nonprofit status.”

Poorly designed software dumped

Following the exasperated resignation of the entire support staff trying to fix the university system’s “Campus Connection” registration software, the state board’s decision to scrap the expensive and poorly designed progam proved to be a move that can only be described as historic. Professors at the University of North Dakota made a quick update to their own languishing class management software, once rejected by the board in favor of the expensive commercial product. It proved to be a delight in both design and service. The approximately $1.6 million saved by the state was returned to students in the form of a one-time tuition rebate. Students were even more surprised when the state legislature voted to restore funding to its constitutionally mandated level, resulting in a 12 percent tuition reduction.

Barnhart faints

It was unfortunate that in April Professor Thomas Barnhart, the union faculty representative, fainted and gashed his leg on the steps of Old Main following the president’s announcement that all faculty salaries would increase 10 percent a year until they reached national averages. But not all change can be entirely positive. The reduction in textbook prices nationally has had some effect on the three-figure incomes textbook authors have habitually expected from students forced to buy their books by the thousands. Still, at least in North Dakota those faculty members will benefit from the chancellor’s decree that textbooks will now count as research for purposes of tenure and promotion.

Healthier options

As you may recall, one of the great disappointments in January was the continued lack of reasonable menu choices at the student union cafeteria. As the problem of obesity in American universities has reached worrisome proportions, it was noted that the union’s menu choices included few options both healthy and appealing. But at the gala opening of the new addition to the union, a dream of nutritionists came true as the food service added a dozen options both nutritious and appealing to give students choice of a healthy meal. Portion sizes of high-fat and high-calorie foods were reduced. Large-sized soft drinks were banned. Students were expected to complain, but a complaint web site set up by the food service went almost ignored.

Athletics win to benefit students

Of course, no recounting of the year could be complete without considering athletics! After UND’s athletic director announced in May that the university would drop the obviously offensive moniker “Fighting Sioux” for the more neutral “Fighting Svenskas,” NDSU’s athletic department also decided it should make a positive gesture for its university. Winning was good, but not enough. “For too long we have accepted high salaries and shameful perks for running a program clearly tangential to the university’s educational mission,” the department declared on its web site announcement. “Therefore, we have decided to eliminate all special benefits not enjoyed by the students and staff as a whole, including high salaries, free vehicles, country club memberships, opulent surroundings and other perks.” As everyone now knows, the athletic department’s “Fit Bisons are Fun" fund available to any student who maintains a regular fitness routine at the Wellness Center has helped improve the health of hundreds of students. In September religious zealots accosted passersby at the student union entrance--not with tiny Bibles, but with free pens reading "Jesus Saves Those Who Quit Smoking." As a Spectrum columnist noted, at least a hundred students declared themselves born again, throwing their smokes into the trash.

Some problems remain

Of course, some of these changes also had unanticipated negative consequences. The health service has so little to do that staff reductions are possible. The area’s pizza shops have seen a slowdown in business of nearly 30 percent as students choose on-campus food service options that are both more healthful and much cheaper than that offered by off-campus vendors. The decision to reduce the coffee cart prices to 75 cents for plain coffee (cream and sugar extra) led to an embarrassing on-campus protest in October from staff of Starbucks, Moxie and Bab’s. And a few alumni decided to withdraw their donations to athletics following that office’s decision to use the money to fund scholarships to athletes and non-athletes alike. But in general, as the year comes to a close, we can conclude that it was a year in which wisdom, respect and generosity ruled both on campus and off.

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