Jul 17th, 2006 @ 8:18 am | Author: By Ellen-Earle Chaffee
"What if you can't cross your fingers any more?" was the powerful question Jody Ingstad raised and discussed so well, as she always does, in her Times-Record column last week. The question prompts so many images and metaphors that are well worth considering.

Two that relate to higher education today are based on the two very different meanings associated with crossing your fingers. You cross your fingers to excuse it (supposedly) when you tell a lie. You cross your fingers when you are hoping very hard for something.

Current higher education events at the state level have generated strong feelings, most of them negative. The stories almost certainly include lies because they contain internal contradictions. Understandably, evidence is emerging that a fragile foundation of trust among leaders and policymakers, forged largely through the Roundtable on Higher Education, is eroding.

The Roundtable is a large group of very high-powered people from government, business, and education that has been meeting for six years to pursue a shared statewide vision to make the university system as effective as possible. Specifically, its goal is "enhancing the economic vitality of North Dakota and the quality of life of its citizens through a high quality, more responsive, equitable, flexible, accessible, entrepreneurial, and accountable University System."

The negative impressions of recent events and comments are threatening to undermine all past and potential efforts to achieve that goal. Rumors are flying about retaliation plans against individuals, institutions, and the university system as a whole.

Imagine that you are not only committed to higher education and the goal of the Roundtable, but also in a significant position to do something that would improve the situation. What would you do? I mean – besides cross your fingers in a profoundly hopeful gesture!

Tom Shorma, president of WCCO Belting in Wahpeton, has chosen to play a leadership role on behalf of the business sector members of the Roundtable. He and his colleagues found something constructive to do.

Last week, Shorma testified before the legislature's higher education committee. To underscore their support, five other Roundtable business members from all over the state attended the meeting as well: Jim Roers, Roers Construction; Roger Reierson, Flint Communications; Greg Allen, Cavendish Farms; Terry Hoff, Trinity Hospital; and Dennis Hill, North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives.

Shorma reminded all present of the Roundtable's mission, and he recounted numerous examples of changes by institutions and the university system to improve economic impact, educational excellence, flexibility, responsiveness, and access. On behalf of the group, he strongly stated their primary concern, that "ND higher education institutions are not sharing in the wealth of a much improved ND economy as originally agreed." He endorsed increased state funding for the system, saying that "the private sector views this as an investment in ND, and not as a cost, to assure continued state-wide economic growth."

We cannot cross our fingers any more. We need truth and improvement, not lies and hope. All of us need to find constructive ways to work toward strengthening the state by learning from this experience and keeping the students and our mission squarely at the forefront.