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Omdahl: Higher ed struggles at another crossroad

By Staff | Dec 12, 2014

Higher education in North Dakota never seems to be out of the frying pan or the fire. Over the next few months, major decisions will be made that will affect the institutions of higher learning for years to come.

In November, the voters turned down Measure No. 3, a proposal that would have provided tighter management and accountability of the institutions using a 3-member full-time management commission.

With that behind it, the Board of Higher Education is now about to name a new chancellor. In addition,

the State Senate will be considering the approval or disapproval of at least two nominees for the Board.

This convergence of circumstances suggests that current choices will have long-lasting impact on the future of higher education.

The difficult task of choosing a chancellor was compounded recently when the presidents of the two major institutions asked for a situation in which they could bypass the chancellor and go directly to the Board with issues.

In egalitarian North Dakota, this request means if the two bigger schools are given this privilege then the presidents of all 11 institutions ought to have that option.

So we are back to the question of whether or not we want a chancellor at all. If the presidents are going to bypassing the chancellor, then the chancellor will become nothing more than an office manager.

Not only are we questioning the need for a chancellor, we are also raising doubts about the value of having anything called a “system”.

The chaos that has plagued the Board for the past 10 years is what led the Legislature to propose the 3-member management committee in the first place. The Legislature would like to see better management.

Now that the election is over, we can admit to the weaknesses of the Board. Higher education needs to move toward stronger management to promote and preserve anything called a system. That means a strong chancellor.

If the Board is going to be responsible, the Board members must keep up to speed on the issues. While a full-time 3-member commission was an overreach, the system needs Board members who can give more time to board business.

This need for informed Board involvement is so great that people who can’t make the time commitment should not be considered for appointment. At the same time, the Legislature should set a salary level so that Board members can afford to invest at least one-third time to Board business. Getting back to the authority of the chancellor, we should decide whether or not we really want one. The state constitution still calls the chief administrator a commissioner. If we choose a weak chancellor, then we need a half-time Board to fill the gap.

Sometime in the past, we thought that the commissioner’s office ought to be strengthened so we gave the office the title of chancellor. However, we have had a hard time warming up to the concept.

Looking at the treatment we gave the only chancellor we’ve ever had – Hamid Shirvani – it is obvious that we don’t have tolerance for a real chancellor.

While choosing a new chancellor and appointing Board members, we ought also decide whether or not we want a system because to have a system we need a chancellor with the authority to keep everyone following the program.

For the purposes of this discussion, we are disregarding the fact that the North Dakota culture doesn’t provide the political support for the authority needed to build and preserve the integrity of a system. It’s uphill all the way.

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