A Special Session to remember

North Dakota lawmakers approve multiple high-impact projects for UND, to the lasting benefit of students, Grand Forks and the state

North Dakota Capitol. State of North Dakota photo.

Where UND is concerned, the November 2021 Special Session of the North Dakota Legislature proved that a lot can happen in a very short time.

The session convened on Monday, Nov. 8, and adjourned on Friday, Nov. 12. That’s only five days.

But UND emerged from the week’s intense lawmaking with real improvements, including projects that will change University and North Dakota life dramatically and for the better across decades to come.

For example, several Space initiatives that UND leaders have talked about for years were funded by the Special Session. So, watch for new facilities such as a UND Satellite Operations Center, UND Satellite Design and Engineering Lab, and UND Satellite Fabrication and Assembly Lab (including a spotless “Clean Room”) to start to take shape.

Andy Armacost

Also on campus, the UND community can look forward to construction teams working their magic on other major buildings around the Quad, just as the teams have done with the Memorial Union, Chester Fritz Library and Nistler College of Business & Public Administration in recent years.

A $50 million appropriation from the Special Session launched a project that – in conjunction with up to $29 million from philanthropic sources – will upgrade Merrifield and Twamley halls, turning both buildings into hubs of state-of-the-art, 21st Century learning.

All told, “I was very pleased and thankful for the support we got from the legislators,” said UND President Andy Armacost, in an interview with UND Today.

“They really took the time to understand the impact of the projects and how they fit into the future direction of the university. They also were willing to advocate for these projects to make them happen.

“So it was a very good session for us,” Armacost continued. “But more important, it was a very good session for our students and, I believe, the state of North Dakota. These are great investments that will deliver tremendous value to the state.”

Below are some of the UND-related highlights of the session in more detail.

As a UND Space Studies student, Stefan Tomovic of Pretoria, South Africa, served as mission commander for the seventh Lunar/Mars Habitat (ILMH) mission that was completed in May. UND archival image.

UND’s Center for Space Education and Research

Interest in Space work at UND is high, and it’s coming from high-level leaders. That’s shown by recent visits to campus by Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., accompanied by Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator; Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, U.S. Space Force; Gen. James Dickinson, U.S. Space Command commander; and Derek Tournear, director of the Space Development Agency.

Along those lines, UND in August became the first of 10 universities to join the new Space Force University Partnership Program.

And with that in mind, UND is pursuing a National Security Initiative to build on the University’s capacity to work with the Department of Defense and other federal agencies.

Phase I of the NSI focuses on Space and autonomy. During its Regular Session earlier this year, the North Dakota Legislature allocated $4 million to invest in Space-related infrastructure at UND. The Special Session added $10 million; and together, these dollars will dramatically boost UND’s capacity to respond to the U.S. Space Force and other agencies’ needs.

For example, Robin Hall 203 will be reconfigured as a Satellite Operation Center, with 16 Space-control stations for education, operations and research, according to a fact sheet put together for legislators. Harrington Hall 109 will become a Digital Engineering & Big Data Lab, hosting workstations and large monitors for advanced training and Defense-related work.

Jed Shivers

A neutral buoyancy tank will expand UND’s expertise in space suit testing. The funding also will help UND do classified work with federal agencies as well as with Grand Forks Air Force Base, Cavalier Space Force Station, and Northrop Grumman and General Atomics at Grand Sky.

With these and other tools being made available, UND will be much better equipped to recruit star faculty – and that’s part of the plan, too, said Jed Shivers, Vice President for Finance and Operations and Chief Operating Officer.

“It really has been a remarkable turn of events,” Shivers said.

Armacost agreed. Also notable, he said, is the high level of statewide support that the projects attracted in Bismarck. Grand Forks-area lawmakers such as State Sen. Ray Holmberg, the Senate Appropriations Committee chair, who helped advance UND’s requests in his committee; State Rep. Mark Sanford on the House Appropriations Committee, who was vital in presenting the Merrifield/Twamley proposal to colleagues in both the House and Senate Appropriations committees; and Rep. Corey Mock, who advanced UND’s and other higher education proposals in the House Appropriations Committee, helped build that consensus.

Reinforcing this was the strong support UND saw from all of the Grand Forks legislators, as well as legislators from elsewhere in the state. Sanford and Mock’s fellow House Appropriations Committee members Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, and Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, for example, advanced the Space and National Security initiative in the House and Senate Appropriations committees. Other legislators from elsewhere in the state, such as Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, also were helpful.

“There’s a genuine enthusiasm among North Dakota legislators for these Space initiatives,” Armacost said.

“What the lawmakers see is the chance for Space-related businesses to come to North Dakota, and for national defense circles to keep putting Grand Forks and North Dakota on the map.” The net result is an inspiring sense of North Dakotans all pulling together, exactly in the way that has led the state to national leadership in UAS, Armacost said.

Merrifield Hall in winter. UND archival image.

Merrifield-Twamley renovation

“The Merrifield-Twamley project is another step in the campus Master Plan,” Shivers said. “And that plan is really all about consolidation, and creating as much density as we can – in terms of both student life and academic buildings – in the historical Quad and along University Avenue.”

The project will fully renovate Merrifield Hall to make it one of the top instructional spaces on campus for non-laboratory programs. It also will repurpose Twamley Hall to accommodate Columbia Hall faculty and staff.

Once that happens, the renovations will let UND decommission both Columbia and Gamble halls, thus reducing the University’s footprint and eliminating about $120 million in needed repairs to those buildings.

Another key aspect of the renovations, and a big draw for legislators, is the fact that UND will be paying for the project with both state dollars and philanthropic support. That’s been a much-appreciated hallmark of several recent UND construction projects.

“And to its enormous credit, the UND Alumni Association & Foundation is fully supportive of this approach,” Shivers said.

That very much includes the Merrifield-Twamley project, said DeAnna Carlson Zink, CEO of the Alumni Association & Foundation, to the Grand Forks Herald. The Legislature’s Special Session funded $50 million of the $79 million project, and the Alumni Association & Foundation is happy to take on the rest.

“Our alumni love these projects where they get to partner with the state,” Carlson Zink told the newspaper. “It’s such a win-win for the university. We greatly appreciate the Legislature and the governor putting that money in there to partner with our alumni and create a wonderful impact for our students.”

Again, the entire Grand Forks delegation worked hard to secure the proposal’s passage, with Interim Higher Education Committee Chairman Mark Sanford and Rep. Claire Cory, R-Grand Forks, among those deserving special mention, University leaders said.

A yardstick for scale shows the amount of damage sustained by the concrete, as well as the potentials for foreign object debris on UND’s flight apron. UND archival image.

Flight apron at GFK

The Special Session also approved $5 million to complete the replacement of the concrete flight apron at the Grand Forks airport. “With aging concrete, debris can fly,” Armacost said.

“So this is a health-and-safety issue for the people walking around the airplanes and out on the flight line. It’s also to protect our investment in the fleet; with 100 aircraft out there, that’s a considerable expense, plus protecting the well-being of the aircraft is a safety issue, too.”

Hyperbaric chamber project

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy “involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized environment,” MayoClinic.org describes.

“In a hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. Under these conditions, your lungs can gather much more oxygen than would be possible breathing pure oxygen at normal air pressure.”

Getting that extra oxygen into the bloodstream has proven therapeutic effects, especially on decompression sickness and serious infections. It may also be useful on long COVID, the prolonged symptoms following COVID-19 infection; that possibility is now being researched.

But the therapy often requires multiple treatments over several weeks, which means patients typically must live fairly close to the chamber.

Thanks to $2.1 million championed by Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, and funded by the Special Session, hyperbaric oxygen therapy will be coming to Grand Forks and other parts of the state where it previously has not been available.

“Working with community partners, we plan to study the efficacy of hyperbaric oxygen treatment in patients with a variety of otherwise difficult-to-treat conditions, such as following traumatic brain injury and those with long COVID,” said Dr. Joshua Wynne, Vice President for Health Affairs and Dean of the School of Medicine & Health Sciences at UND.

“We hope to bring together experts in various fields to work with the HBOT team to assess the impact and potential benefit of HBOT on the quality of life of patients with a variety of conditions,” Wynne continued. “We are grateful to the North Dakota Legislature for providing funding for this initiative to improve the health of citizens in the region.”

Vaccine mandate exemption

One other outcome of the Special Session deserves mention, and that is the Legislature’s willingness to exempt universities from North Dakota’s new vaccine-mandate ban.

State Rep. Emily O’Brien, R-Grand Forks, worked with legislative leaders and other state officials to come up with language that exempted entities such as UND – which have federal contracts – from having to comply with a prohibition of vaccination mandates in North Dakota.

Sen. Curt Kreun, R-Grand Forks, was prepared to offer amendments on the Senate floor to support the exemption. State Sen. JoNell Bakke, D-Grand Forks, argued persuasively for a broader exemption for higher education.

UND has extensive contracts with the federal government. “That means the University must walk a fine line with both the state and federal governments,” Armacost said.

A nationwide, court-ordered injunction, issued last week, has put the federal vaccine mandate on hold. But even if the injunction is lifted, UND won’t be put into a position where either its compliance with state law or $100 million in federal contracts would be at risk. That’s thanks to the exemption granted by North Dakota lawmakers.

“We’re so grateful that the Legislature was sensitive to this, and truly gratified by the balance that was struck,” Armacost said.