Higher ed accreditation team visits with N.D. lawmakers
North Dakota legislators expressed varied viewpoints on how well the State Board of Higher Education has been governing state institutions at a meeting with a national accreditation team on Tuesday.
While some legislators felt the board had made more mistakes than others, it was clear the most important thing to everyone was to make sure conflicts with governance don’t affect whether the 11 institutions the board oversees are accredited.
Chairman of the Higher Learning Commission’s advisory team, John Marr, who is also the dean of academic affairs at Ohio’s Cuyahoga Community College, assured the group that the system in place is working well.
“We are coming away with the sense that people just really want the best for higher education in North Dakota,” he said.
The HLC visit was prompted by former Valley City State University President Ellen Chaffee, who sent a letter to the agency last spring alleging the governance practices of the SBHE and former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani violated the HLC’s accreditation requirements.
In a meeting with campus officials and SBHE members on Monday, university presidents said concerns with governance had subsided since Shirvani left.
But on Tuesday, several members of the legislature’s Higher Education Funding Committee described the SBHE’s actions as “frustrating.”
With a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall that would replace the current eight-member volunteer board with three paid full-time members, board President Kirsten Diederich said she feared a board appointed and paid by the legislature would be biased.
The HLC requires an autonomous governing body for accreditation. SBHE member Duaine Espegard said during the board’s meeting Monday that the board doesn’t have the autonomy it should.
“Every time there’s a session, they put laws in to take away some of our autonomy,” he said of the legislature, adding lawmakers hold the purse strings for the university system.
Autonomy also is taken away by institutional leaders who “do it the way they want to do it,” he said.
Espegard also said he has served on the board for seven years and there have been five different chancellors, “two of them run out” and the rest interim chancellors.
“And I believe it’s the governance,” he said. “If you don’t have the autonomy to do the job you’re required to do, you’ve got issues.”
Legislators said their constituents are expressing concern over controversial university system actions such as the purchase of the REAC building on UND’s campus, the elimination of UND’s Fighting Sioux nickname and logo, and “bailout” of a Bismarck-based nursing college currently run by Sanford Health at the urging of North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani.
“If they want to be an independent body, then by God, they better start acting like it and can’t just rubber stamp what the presidents hand them,” Rep. Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck, said of the state board.
Dosch said that while he realized the board has a difficult job, he thought some of its financial decisions weren’t made correctly, especially concerning Sanford.
“I think that there needs to be more people with some financial background because that seems to be where the frustration is,” he said in regards to the people on the board.
While the legislature has increased funding for higher education over the years, the number of students in the system has not increased at the same rate. Because of this, Dosch said taxpayers are telling him they’re frustrated.
Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, said he thought it was typical for a state’s legislature not to always agree with an entity like the SBHE because while the legislature ultimately writes the checks, it doesn’t control the board.
But legislators did agree the funding model based on a university’s performance that was put in place last legislative session was a step in the right direction.
“Money talks,” Dosch said. “That’s the bottom line.”
HLC President Sylvia Manning will make a recommendation based on the findings of the visit that could range anywhere from continuing to monitor the situation to suspension of accreditation.
No matter what happens with the ballot measure this fall, Martinson said the most important thing was to work with the HLC to not put accreditation in jeopardy.