Incoming UND president ready to take on research proposal challenge
GRAND FORKS — Incoming University of North Dakota President Andrew Armacost says he will be "front and center" of efforts to help UND secure more funding for research, a proposal that was pushed in the last legislative session before it ultimately failed.
UND and North Dakota State University will be making another push to split $100 million in Legacy Fund earnings to use for research that the presidents of those schools say will benefit the entire state. Though an amended proposal, which instead asked for the schools to split up to 15%, or $45 million, in Legacy Fund interest, passed the Senate. It died in the House.
The failure is proving to be a learning lesson for the schools and the North Dakota University System. The State Board of Higher Education’s research committee has been discussing a renewed proposal for several months.
“I think there’ll still be a strong push to capitalize upon the great momentum that was created in the last legislative cycle,” Armacost said.
Armacost, along with interim UND President Joshua Wynne, met with the Grand Forks Herald editorial board and reporters Tuesday morning, Feb. 4, on the UND campus. It was the first extended interview with the media since he was hired in December.
The 2019 research proposal was a major initiative not only for NDSU and UND, but also for the Valley Prosperity Partnership, a consortium of Fargo and Grand Forks leaders who helped with the effort. The campaign included visits throughout the state to discuss the proposal prior to the 2019 legislative session.
Does Armacost see himself as a leader in the next statewide push for research dollars?
"Absolutely," he said. "... The president of a mainstay flagship university like UND has to be at the front and center of research efforts and advocating for the resources that might be needed."
While he’s still learning more about the research proposal’s process and its past failure, Armacost said sometimes these types of ventures don’t always come to fruition on the first attempt.
“You learn from the feedback you receive and you try to put together something that benefits the entire state," he said. "I think that’s the direction this proposal will head.”
This time the proposal is coming with some tweaks, Wynne noted, seeking to address some of the reasons why it may have failed originally.
At minimum 10% of their state-awarded funds would be made available by each school to fund “competitively ranked” collaborative research proposals submitted by any of the nine other state colleges. There also would be more oversight in the new proposal, with internal and external advisory committees that would help oversee the funds.
Another potential tweak? How the universities, and the system, are approaching the western part of the state.
Prior to the last legislative session, former UND President Mark Kennedy and current NDSU President Dean Bresciani spent time visiting with leaders in western North Dakota – Minot, Bismarck, Dickinson, Watford City and Williston – about the importance of dedicating state dollars toward research.
Wynne said it’s important for the universities to be able to articulate what’s best for North Dakota, not just the universities.
“So what we will be very explicit on is what the return will be on this effort to the people of North Dakota,” Wynne said, noting the return on investment doesn’t just have to be an economic one, but also how it can “positively affect” the people of North Dakota in a “meaningful” way.
Armacost said there have already been examples of how UND can partner with other schools in the system on research. UND recently supported Dickinson State with a research grant proposal. Dickinson took the lead on the proposal, but using its grant proposal experience, UND helped DSU put the proposal together.
“It was a real great example of the cooperation that UND can offer to the other members of the university system,” Armacost said.
At least one Minot business leader says the school leaders need to better understand the research needs of the oil and gas industry.
During a recent roundtable meeting held in Minot – sponsored by the Grand Forks-based magazine Prairie Business – Kevin Black, president of Creedence Energy, said he thinks it is “important for the East not to forget the reason why they even have the opportunity to ask” for the research money.
“That is oil and gas tax revenue, right?” Black said. “Nobody is going to disagree that yes, we need to use those dollars and that research to discover and invest in emerging economies and for diversifying our economy. But let's face the fact that the oil and gas industry is going to be active in North Dakota. There are 30-plus years of drilling that is going to take place."
Black said if the schools want to gain support in the western part of the state it will be “vital that some of that research goes to investing in infrastructure and further technology development” in the oil industry.
Research dollars need to be invested in the continuation of North Dakota “staying on top of the industry” as it competes with states like Texas, he said.
“We have to continue to invest in North Dakota to make (the state) a leader in the United States if we want to continue to see those tax revenues from oil and gas,” Black said. “If we're not competitive and not at the tip of the spear, people will invest in the Permian or other places.”
Also at that meeting last week, Minot Mayor Shaun Sipma talked about a conversation between Minot officials and guests from Minot's sister city in Norway, a country that has a trillion-dollar "Wealth Fund" that it grew via oil and gas tax revenues. North Dakota's Legacy Fund – also accumulated from oil and gas tax revenues – last year surpassed $6 billion.
Armacost, who officially begins his presidency on June 1, is working part time at UND during the transition period. Armacost will be on campus several days each month and take part in discussions, while also meeting with university officials and other leaders in the community and region. He is being paid $6,500 a month for his duties and is traveling to and from Colorado.