University boss’ political endorsement fuels ND debate

There’s quite a brouhaha in North Dakota because the interim president of a university made a political endorsement, igniting a debate over whether the heads of academic institutions should be involved in partisan politics.

Ed Schafer, a former governor of North Dakota and current interim president of the University of North Dakota, endorsed Doug Burgum this week. He’s a Republican running for governor.

“We turn to academia for input on public policy but then say ‘Oh by the way, a president shouldn’t talk about politics?'” Schafer tells Forum Communications. “Maybe if they were more engaged we’d have a better relationship between the government and university system.”

In a strongly worded editorial this week, the Fargo Forum newspaper said Schafer “thumbed his nose” at the tradition of not mixing politics and higher education.

Schafer didn’t break the law. He did not ignore policy, because there is no policy about political endorsements. He did, however, violate a decades-old tradition that goes to the heart and structure of North Dakota’s semi-autonomous higher education system. While he has stressed the importance of the higher ed “system,” he opted for a lone-wolf political endorsement that erodes efforts by the chancellor, the board and enlightened legislators to forge a stronger, collaborative university system.

Schafer has every right to support a candidate. But because of his role at UND, his preference should have remained private. The embarrassingly silent higher ed board and the chancellor’s office have some soul-searching to do. The time may come when the board seeks another interim president on a major campus. If Schafer, by virtue of his budget work at UND, is on the list, his decision to taint higher education with politics should be prominent in the discussion.

Schafer says politicians have threatened payback.

“If we have legislators who, because the political system forces you to choose one person over another, are going to be vindictive on budgets or students or tuition that is the worst kind of politics there is,” he said.