It is impossible to predict the future with any certainty, but evidence is growing that our economy, society and higher education need to rapidly confront the effects of digitization. The emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) affecting human, machine and data systems is perhaps the latest driver of digital disruption. The widespread reporting on ChatGPT is just the most recent example of the monumental challenge now bursting upon our state and our nation.i

Illustration from the 1979 children’s book Your Name? Robot by Mikhail Romadin.

Historically, state systems of higher education have proven to be a key tool in helping states and their citizens navigate and even thrive through disruptive change, as Land Grant and A&M campuses did in the Industrial Age.

In today’s age of accelerating digital change, educational institutions are being called upon to help our nation and our people adapt. Examples of such requests include Congressional and White House direction for higher education to help build a new national DOD Cyber and Digital Service Academy; Congressional calls and funding for a revamped research, workforce and research agenda (the Chips and Science Bill); and many states and the U.S. Department of Labor calling upon state higher education systems to assist with workforce retraining and upskilling in the cyber-digital realm.ii

But the leaders of the North Dakota University System and constituent colleges and universities realize the days of “go it alone” by single campuses, or even single state systems, won’t get us to scale at the needed speed. Rather, collaborative problem-solving and reorientation to tackle digital transformation across all our state educational institutions and those of our neighboring states are required.

To that end, the University Alliance (full moniker: the Mountain and Plains University Innovation Alliance)a consortium of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho university systems—was established in the fall of 2022.iii Why was this needed and how did it come about?

Emerging Technology’s Opportunity & Risk for Rural America

Society is now experiencing AI’s emerging nexus in digital machines and a metaverse of data (sometimes referred to as cyberspace). As the digital world grows, financial benefits accrue to only a small portion of the population, with large swaths of the country left behind or left insecure. Almost 80 percent of venture capital is concentrated in a handful of coastal states, while North Dakota and our rural neighbors are among the bottom five states. What does this mean?

Large tech hubs—such as Silicon Valley, the Boston- NYC corridor and DC-MD-Northern Virginia (home of the new Amazon Campus)—are growing wealthier and providing more opportunity to their people and their children.

In contrast, where cyberspace and digital machines intersect with regions, cities and households outside the tech hubs, signs of distress are mounting. Darkening clouds of hacking and privacy abuses, misinformation and disinformation and lack of equal access cast a shadow of social, employment and political insecurity. Also alarming, we are seeing a rapid increase in child depression and suicide, a major shift that scientists increasingly associate with the widespread penetration of society by the highly advanced communication and computational device, the smart phone and the growth of social media sites.iv While the elites in the tech hubs are typically immune to these damaging effects, the working people even in these tech hubs often struggle, manifest by the stoning of Google buses in San Francisco.

Lastly, human-centric cultural values, which attach to humans and human life, are being affected by the emergence of intelligent machines. The massive concentration of digital machines, algorithms, human programmers and executives in the tech hubs combine to exert a profound social and political influence across the nation. Meanwhile, rural America is seldom at the table to discuss the future of humanity in a digitizing world. If we doubt the significance of the social issues surrounding the emergence of advanced technological systems, guided by an ever smaller and more elite slice of American society, consider that the White House recently called for a new Digital Bill of Rights for AI.v

Accordingly, North Dakotans and rural Americans need to participate in creating and shaping, as well as benefiting from, emerging technologies. Higher education is a key tool to create, shape and reap benefits from emerging technology. But there is a problem of scale.

Higher Education as Key to the Future

The likelihood that our technical elites in Silicon Valley can tackle the challenge of digital transformation and make a better world for rural Americans is doubtful, in part due to a lack of trust from the public. Amazon was even driven out of high-tech New York City. Facebook/ Meta paid a $5-billion fine for privacy violations, and many in Congress and the states argue that massive digital and social media companies (e.g., Meta, Amazon, Twitter, Google) should, along with other social media companies, be more strictly Who can help navigate the road ahead?

Educational institutions will be at the center of such efforts, as they were in the last great transformation, the Industrial Revolution and mechanization of agriculture. In the 1860s, President Abraham Lincoln created the land-grant university system to support the nation’s agriculture and industry in developing and adapting to new science and technology. The accomplishments of higher education in the Industrial Age are almost too numerous to list but include the creation of the modern engineering profession, modern agronomy, and the emergent fields of aerospace engineering and computer science.

But today, national educational research activity is tilted toward the mega-university, which is not

inclusive of and is in fact predatory upon researchers and the professoriate in rural America. In order to create a more geographically inclusive future, to allow all Americans to reap the benefits of advanced technology, the rural states and their universities have had to find a way to join more fully in the creation of this future economy.

The North Dakota University System tackled this problem of achieving scale in rural areas early. In 2018, North Dakota leaders proposed a new Digital Land Grant system, a concept that was published by the nation’s leading educational periodicals.vii That proposal would send funding to the states and

campuses on the condition they prioritize responding to the challenge of digitization, including workforce cyber training as well as furthering research, not just in the hard sciences and engineering, but also in the realm of digital policy, law and ethics.

This proposal led to discussions at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, on two occasions, and with Congressional staff. Interest and support was high, including from education advisors (Gordon Gee, then President of the University of West Virginia) who was working with Rep. Ro Khanna, of Silicon Valley, to learn more about North Dakota’s new educational model.viii But with the change in federal administration and control of both Houses of Congress in 2020, the political momentum shifted from a new land grant system controlled at the state level to an expansion of federal funding directed out of the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Commerce. This was embedded in the Endless of Frontier Bill, crafted by Rep. Khanna in the House and advocated by Senator Schumer in the Senate, and was eventually incorporated into the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021.ix

Though our preference may have been a Digital-Cyber Land Grant system controlled by respective states, it is urgent to help rural America now. And what is reality now? The passage of the massive CHIPS and Science Act, which grew out of the Endless Frontier Bill, may exceed $200 billion and stands as a testament of the scale needed to effect a national transformation and adapt to accelerating digitization and other related emerging technologies.

However, North Dakota or any of our rural neighbor states is too small to compete successfully alone. All our universities and colleges have a problem of scale, even if statewide collaboration is seamless. To achieve that competitive scale, the North Dakota University System partnered with our neighboring university systems and campuses in December 2020 to form the five-state University Alliance, which was codified in 2022.x

Achieving Scale with the University Alliance

The University Alliance creates a network of five state systems using advanced technology to conduct

research and deliver both technical and social science/humanities education on campuses located across the region. The University Alliance will move beyond the limits of city geographies of large urban areas and knit together rural populations and tribal nations that otherwise would be left behind. As well, the University Alliance will leverage existing research, education and training programs to expand the region’s ability to support the expansion of high-tech industries. States, universities and tribal colleges that join this transformative effort will bring the best of both online and brick-and-mortar education, which offer

expanded technical and nontechnical curricula to help our campuses, systems and states respond to emerging technologies.


The high-tech future economy is rapidly growing at the nexus of human researchers, innovators and

workforce. All Americans, including those in the rural northern plains and mountain states, should reap the harvest of wealth and opportunity afforded by these new technologies. State university systems must help their respective stakeholders benefit from emerging technology: their residents, business communities, and municipal and state governments.

Taken together, this is a tall order beyond the resources and span of control of any individual campus or

state system. It is why our five states have formed this partnership of independent state systems into a collaborative ‘system of systems’ to achieve scale at speed, with a wide scope that reaches rural and tribal America. With the University Alliance, more rural states, cities and towns can access the knowledge and resources they need to weave a better future in the emerging digital socioeconomic system.

Having such a regional system of state systems will allow the nation to achieve a scale of response that is more cost effective; expands the scope to more underserved populations and regions; and achieves both of these transformative goals more rapidly. The urgency of the challenge is hard to exaggerate. Just as the land-grant system transformed higher education to catalyze agricultural and industrial capacity across a growing nation in the 19th century, so can a regional alliance of rural states provide the educational foundation needed to ensure economic and democratic vitality and security for the entire nation, both urban and rural, in the 21st century. ª

Mountains & Plains University Innovation Alliance


  • Boise State University
  • Idaho State University
  • The University of Idaho


  • Montana State University
  • Montana Technical University
  • The University of Montana

North Dakota

  • North Dakota State University
  • The University of North Dakota

South Dakota

  • Dakota State University
  • South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
  • South Dakota State University
  • The University of South Dakota


  • The University of Wyoming

Five-State Innovative University Alliance—Features & Possible Futures:

Universities and colleges in this new effort can better reach scale and thus offer more competitive pay and better-staffed research facilities to recruit and promote tech innovators, especially cyber-computer science faculty, including those in ethics, law and the humanities, who focus on the digital transformation of our society.

New funding mechanisms, such as the Chips and Science Act, relieve the burden on hard-pressed rural universities and students. Hopefully, there will be some additional help from the respective state governments and legislative supporters.

To accelerate adaptation, respective legislators might provide additional state support, such as potential state tax incentives for contributions to university endowments that promote innovation in the emerging fields of research, economic development and workforce preparation.

The University Alliance, now invigorated with state support and federal monies, would provide an especially welcoming environment for regional and national technology companies to partner. Similarly, having achieved scale, this rural University Alliance would be better able to attract other research partners, including leading high-tech universities, with mutual interests or the desire to test technologies in our test centers and open skies.

Given that the five-state region is home to almost half of the nation’s tribal colleges, a major focus of the University Alliance is encouraging investments in traditionally underserved peoples and places. By focusing on expanded partnerships with tribal colleges and nations, the University Alliance can help bridge the gap between emerging tech cultures found typically on the coasts with traditional native cultures.

Areas of research and innovation will include, as a minimum, autonomous systems, digital sciences, energy and advanced materials science, quantum computing, forest and rangeland management, cybersecurity, predictive and precision agriculture, and the social sciences and workforce programs where they intersect the emergence of new technology.


i Sovov, Vlad, “CHAT GPT Could be AI’s iPhone Moment,”Bloomberg, 12 December 2022, link: newsletters/2022-12-12/chatgpt-the-gpt-3-chatbot-from-openai-microsoft-is- tech-magic; Russel, Stuart, Machine Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control, New York: Viking, 2019; Eric Schmidt, Henry Kissinger, Daniel Huttenlocher, The Age of AI and our Human Future, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2021.

ii Heckman, Jory, “AI commission sees ‘extraordinary’ support to stand up tech- focused service academy,” Federal News Network, 2 March 2021, link: https:// extraordinary-support-to-stand-up-tech-focused-service-academy/

iii Mountains and Plains University Innovation Alliance members: Idaho (Boise State University, Idaho State University, University of Idaho), Montana (Montana State University, Montana Technological University, University of Montana), North Dakota (North Dakota State University, University of North Dakota), South Dakota (Dakota State University, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, South Dakota State University, University of South Dakota) and Wyoming (University of Wyoming).

iv Twenge, Jean M., iGEN: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What This Means for the Rest of Us), New York: Atria Books, 2017.

v White House calls for a new Bill for Rights in the Age of AI. Announcement link:

vi Congressional leaders include those from both side of the aisle, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D), Senator Josh Hawley (R), President Biden and former President Donald Trump. Multiple states have also enacted or are wrestling with this issue, as well, and the State of Washington enacted a tax on digital and social media companies to better fund its K-12 and higher education systems.

vii Hagerott, Mark, “Silicon Valley Must Help Rural America: Here’s How,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 September 2018, accessed here: https://; Hagerott, Mark, “Time for a Digital-Cyber Land Grant System,” Issues in Science and Technology, 36, no. 2 (Winter 2020): 23–26.

viii Letter from Gordon Gee, President of University of West Virginia, to Mark Hagerott, Chancellor of the North Dakota University System, December 5, 2018.


x Several press releases document the formation of the Alliance, link here to an NDSU press release:; also, an affiliate of National Public Radio (Prairie Public) also reported on the Alliance, link here: university-system-part-of-a-regional-technology-and-innovation-alliance.

Mark Hagerott, PhD
Chancellor at North Dakota University System

Hagerott serves as the Chancellor of the North Dakota University System. Previously, he served on the faculty of the United States Naval Academy as an historian of technology, a distinguished professor and the deputy director of the Center for Cyber Security Studies. As a certified naval nuclear engineer, Hagerott served as chief engineer for a major environmental project de-fueling two atomic reactors. Other technical leadership positions include managing tactical data networks and the specialized artificial intelligence AEGIS system, which led to ship command. Hagerott served as a White House Fellow and studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His research and writing focus on the evolution of technology and education. He served on the Defense Science Board summer study of robotic systems and as a non-resident Cyber Fellow of the New America Foundation. In 2014, Hagerott was among the first American military professors to brief the Geneva Convention on the challenge of lethal robotic machines and to argue the merits of an early arms control measure.