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Higher ed can’t afford more scandals

By Staff | Aug 17, 2012

A month hardly goes by without some scandal at an institution of higher learning appearing on the front pages of the state’s newspapers. And after the roughing up in the last session of the legislature, higher education can’t afford any more scandals.

Misdeeds only feed the acquisitive appetite of legislators who would like to get control of higher education. To protect the integrity of the university system, the board needs to launch some initiatives to head off radical surgery.

While some suggestions for corrective action reflect overreaction, neither changing the structure of the board nor smothering institutions with excessive oversight is an answer.

As for the structure, management of institutions of higher learning by boards of seven to nine members has been the model for almost all universities and colleges. It is a proven management design.

Since there is no logical connection between the scandals and the board structure, there is no reason to even think about revamping the board. The problem is elsewhere.

First, North Dakota higher education has mushroomed in the last 20 years, increasing the board workload and spawning complex problems. Maybe it’s time to rethink the traditional criteria for choosing board members.

Our selection process is fairly thorough, with a committee of five screening candidates and forwarding a list of three to the governor for appointment with confirmation by the state senate. Even so, the selections are not equally qualified.

Having served in the governor’s office, I know of instances when geographic location, institutional connections and political pressure have worked against the appointment of the best candidates.

We need board members who have no axes to grind, no water to carry for certain institutions, and no need for political honors. To serve effectively, board members should have prior public experience, good interpersonal skills and an understanding of North Dakota values.

The official policy manual of the board spells out the expectations of board members.

They are expected to become fully informed about the mission and implementation plan of each school; to understand the organization and governance of all degree programs; to know interrelationships of the institutions; to understand laws governing higher education, and to know the relationships of all actors in higher education.

With this knowledge, they are expected to assist in developing the board’s strategic plan, monitor achievement of goals, evaluate the board, oversee and assist the chancellor, assume leadership roles on the board, establish policies of governance, and take part in professional development.

These are just the formal expectations. The informal ones are more demanding. Every legislator, institutional official, student leader, media representative and ordinary citizen expects to whale on board members in their offices, at lunch counters, retail establishments and waiting rooms.

We hold them responsible for every mischievous thought or scheme concocted by anyone on any campus. It shouldn’t be surprising that board members are resigning because of the amount of time required to do board business.

Having a chancellor helps, but the board cannot delegate the ultimate authority for its constitutional mandates. When the chips are down, they get the credit or the blame more often the blame.

That being the case, it is obvious that we need to acquire more of their services. Given the rapidly-changing demands placed on higher education, it is simply not possible for board members to meet their responsibilities without committing more time.

True, requiring more meetings and briefings will reduce the pool of persons able to serve but the trade-off is unavoidable. It is the best way for the board to restore public confidence in its ability to govern.

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