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Is the Board of Higher Education dysfunctional?

By Staff | Jun 17, 2011

Article VIII of the state constitution grants sweeping powers to the Board of Higher Education for the management of the state’s colleges and universities. A number of recent events suggest, however, that the Board may not be measuring up to its constitutional mandate.

First, the Board failed to defend itself against encroachment by the Legislature in the Fighting Sioux logo issue. By failing to assert itself, the Board left a precedent that will be pointed out in future legislative invasions of the Board’s authority. Instead of fighting, the Board just “rolled over”.

Second, the Board proclaimed that student tuition increases would be restricted to a maximum of 2.5 percent. This was followed quickly by a request from one institution for an 8.8 percent increase, which was granted only a few days after the Board set the policy and the Legislature adjourned.

Third, the Board has failed to monitor the reckless use of online courses by institutions to pad their enrollment figures. All institutions are rushing into this new game. Unfortunately, the academic quality of some of these courses is subject to question.

Fourth, the Board has permitted the proliferation of majors, post-graduate degrees and programs that are not adequately staffed by faculty to deliver the quality students have a right to expect.

This is not to mention the whole series of episodes involving Joe Chapman when he served as president of NDSU and left higher education with a black eye that will take years to overcome. During this period, the Board demonstrated an inability to monitor and curb abuses.

To what can we attribute these failures of the Board to manage the colleges and universities? As far as appointments are concerned, we have a good screening process for obtaining quality Board members. They are nominated by a select screening committee, appointed by the governor from a list of three, and then confirmed by the state senate.

Of course, the process is not neutral. Unfortunately, it does not thwart the covert crusades in university cities to get “their” persons (residents or graduates) appointed to represent their institutions’ interests. Consequently, the Board does get some members who think it is their responsibility to fight for certain institutions.

Then there is the constant lobbying by chambers of commerce, alumni organizations and various other community and college interests. Many of these contacts are made one-on-one with Board members and Board members get caught up in personal campaigns to promote special benefits for one institution at the expense of the system as a whole. Legislators from the university cities also get into the game because their constituents expect parochial support.

Then there is the problem of the federal earmarks conjured up by programmatic people at the institutions and presented to the Congressional delegation to pursue. When an earmark for $3 million is made available for a program that subverts the overall academic mission, it becomes difficult for the Board or recipient institutions to resist the call of cheap money from Washington.

It is obvious that Board members are torn by a large number of competing interests that must be negotiated to move forward. To cope with demands, the Board has doled out favors to all institutions because in the North Dakota culture we think everyone ought to get something, regardless of merit.So, rather than focusing resources on needs, we misallocate resources to keep everyone happy.

If the Board is to strengthen its control of higher education, the key in the future will be a stronger staff that can provide the Board with solid objective arguments that will overcome the political influences that seem to be winning the day. That’s a topic for next week.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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