National Geographic – Do the folks who take the pictures understand?

National Geographic has a recent feature on North Dakota. The piece was vaguely reminiscent of Poppers’ Buffalo Commons. In both cases, the negative imagery (isolation and bleakness) used to describe N.D. has offended many who live here (e.g., today’s editorial). Perhaps it depends on what one regards as beautiful and whether one regards a low population density as depressing. The complaint here is that low population density has been attributed to negative factors (cold and long winters, flat landscapes, lack of opportunity). Actually, it can be argued a declining population is a sign of progress. For example, farming has become so high tech and functions on such a large scale that it does not require a large number of individuals devoted to the tasks. I guess efficiency and productivity has costs.

It might be argued that these are the best of times in North Dakota. Our state is often on the up swing when other states are experiencing problems. The farmers experienced bumper groups this year and unlike so many years when the crops are large, the prices now are also very high. As I understand the argument, the use of corn to create alcohol for fuels has driven up the price for all grains and influenced the cost of any product directly or indirectly influenced by expensive feed grains. Check out what has happened to food costs as a consequence. North Dakota also has massive coal reserves and some oil. I am not certain I am pleased with the consequences of burning coal and not sure the reason extracting oil in North Dakota is now lucrative is a good sign for the country as a whole, but these industries are booming. BTW – so is wind energy.

We even profit from the down turn in the general economy and the advance of the Canadian against the U.S. dollars. The Canadians are streaming across the border here to purchase inexpensive goods. Hotel rooms were often difficult to come by during the holiday shopping season and all those folks filling up the waiting areas in eating establishments on weekends is annoying – 😉 .

There are some things that bother me about living in a low population state. In some sectors you cannot downsize services to match your population. Small towns are suffering here as in many midwest states. Education in small communities and in the state in general is a good example. I understand this situation through my personal experiences at the University of North Dakota. The reality of critical mass often represents a challenge for us. You need a med school and a law school. You need physics and philosophy departments and fine arts programs. To maintain an institution that offers the necessary diversity of expertise and the breadth of graduate programs necessary to maintain the ranking necessary to compete for external funds is a challenge. If you cannot compete for external funding, you cannot attract quality faculty members and the most elite students and you also have fewer resources to work with. One element in the economics of the institution must be tuition dollars and obviously the more students the more tuition. We know exactly how many kids are out there in K-12 and we know the number is declining. This puts a research institution in a difficult situation – you need to draw students from elsewhere and students don’t come from elsewhere unless you have high quality programs. How do you generate the money to create the level of quality necessary to attract students? You can find mediocre anywhere.

I hope technology is part of the answer. While there is always the danger of assuming the area in which you work is the area to develop, I do think that the opportunities in online education represent a real opportunity for extending the reach of quality programs. I also think I understand the challenges in doing so. Time efficiencies are so often misunderstood. Still, online interactivity has come a long way and quality experiences relevant to many areas of study are now possible and continuing to improve.

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