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Measure #1 solves nothing in higher ed

By Lloyd Omdahl - | Sep 26, 2020

Proposing to double the size of the Board of Higher Education, Measure #1 threatens to burden the system more than help. This November 3 ballot measure has yet to be explained by its legislative sponsors so it’s merits are still a mystery.

Playing in the background we have a 80-year gripe by the Legislature against the Board. It was created in the later 1930s after capitol politics threatened the professionalism of the institutions. Friends of higher education, primarily in Fargo, decided to initiate a constitutional amendment to remove the Board from jurisdiction of the legislative and executive branches.

The constitutional status has frustrated the Legislature’s hopes of broadening its empire into higher education and has through the years proposed a number of meddling amendments, almost all of which have been defeated at the polls.

The Board now has seven members. Measure No.1 would add another seven for a board of 14; a size frowned upon by management companies that have studied the impact of board sizes on committee functions.

Four such companies were contacted and none of the four recommended a board of as large as 14. In fact, they all agreed that 7-9 member boards were ideal.

So what are the sponsors expecting from doubling the size?

A larger board would permit broader representation which would be okay except the Board is not supposed to be a representative assembly. It has administrative duties and policy issues with which to deal. However, if representativeness is the virtue sought, what new groups deserve seats? Would future appointments concern representativeness more than good judgment and wisdom of board candidates?

The Board is already burdened with the parochial interests of the various institutions. The negotiators in every institution burn up the phone lines when the candidates for the Board are announced, searching for clues about whether or not the candidates have grudges or favorites in the race.

Sometimes, politics inside and outside of the institutions obfuscate choices. It can be told now that Governor George Sinner wanted to appoint a former Republican senator but lost it because of a mix of institutional and geographic politics. In my view, the ex-senator would have been a great choice.

When vacancies appear, every politically influential person in North Dakota decides that this is an easy job for any citizen on the street. So there may be many aspirants but most with thin credentials.

A larger board would generate more opinions. In one respect, opinions can be valuable but it takes much longer for a 14-member board to discuss, evaluate and negotiate them than a 7-member board. In other words, Board meetings will be much longer.

That is a liability because it is difficult to find good members who can afford to spend several days a month away from their jobs. Finding a total of 14 good members who could spend a whole week at monthly board meetings would be a challenge.

To be effective and efficient, the Board is usually accompanied by representatives of the institutions. The time and travel required would add to the total new expense of doubling the Board.

We have already had departures from the Board due to the time requirements at regular Board meetings and dealing with all of the issues that come up between meetings.

I sure would like to know what we are fixing with Measure No.1. As I noted in a previous column, the Board operates like any other board charged with similar duties. It doesn’t need structural repair. If all of these parochial interests would withdraw, the system would work better.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

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