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Debate over higher ed measure focuses on risk to accreditation

Kirsten Diederich1 / 2
Al Carlson2 / 2

BISMARCK – Evoking memories of the 2012 diploma mill scandal and suicide at Dickinson State University and more recent missteps by higher education officials, House Majority Leader Al Carlson on Wednesday downplayed fears that a November ballot measure would put the accreditation of North Dakota’s public colleges and universities at risk.

“I don’t believe that the red herring exists on accreditation,” Carlson said during a debate in Bismarck as part of a policy summit put on by the Greater North Dakota Chamber.

Measure 3, the constitutional amendment placed on the Nov. 4 ballot by state lawmakers last year, would replace the current eight-member volunteer State Board of Higher Education with a commission of three paid full-time members.

Carlson, R-Fargo, and Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, squared off against board President Kirsten Diederich, University System Chancellor Larry Skogen and the system’s chief of staff, Murray Sagsveen, in a discussion Wednesday of the measure’s merits and potential effects.

The debate fell on the same day the Grand Forks Herald and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead published front-page stories that described how Diederich asked everyone but board members and legal counsel to leave the room during a July 30 retreat so the board could talk alone with a consultant. Diederich told those present “you have the right to stay if you like,” according to a recording obtained by the Herald.

Rob Port, editor of the Say Anything Blog, has asked Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem for an opinion on whether the board violated open meetings law.

The recording captured a frank discussion between the board and consultant Tom Meredith about the lack of trust between board members and campus presidents, with Meredith telling members that it appears the board is “running scared.”

“When I read an article like I read in the paper today, and I have phone calls from citizens in Dickinson about a diploma mill, and the only person who was ever released from out there was the one unfortunately who killed himself, I’m telling you if we didn’t lose accreditation over that, we’re not going to lose accreditation over much of anything,” Carlson said, referring to the suicide of DSU dean Doug LaPlante on Feb. 10, 2012, the same day the school revealed an audit report that painted DSU as a diploma mill that awarded degrees and certificates to 400 foreign students who hadn’t earned them.

The board fired former DSU President Richard McCallum in the fall of 2011 after a report found the university’s enrollment numbers had been inflated by falsely enrolling community members.

Diederich said the board is functioning “much better” than it did in the past, and that she was “thrilled” that the information from the retreat discussion made the front page of The Forum.

“That is what we’re trying to get across. We are going through training. We’re learning. We’re trying to become the best functioning board that we can be,” she said. “We did not break an open meetings (law). If we wanted to hide that, why were we running a tape recorder? … We knew this was coming out, but we needed to have this discussion.”

Sagsveen, the system’s chief of staff, said based on his discussions with the accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission, he questions whether it’s worth the risk to scrap the eight-member board for a three-member commission. HLC President Sylvia Manning wrote in a letter to the North Dakota Legislative Council in January that she believes the proposed structure “raises questions about whether … the institutions would be in compliance with the Commission’s requirements on governance.”

“We don’t know what the unintended consequences of this are, whether it’s accreditation or something else,” Sagsveen said.

Diederich noted that North Dakota voters approved the current governance structure in 1938 to put a stop to political meddling in higher education, and she suggested a paid commission would be less autonomous.

Carlson said the University System, which had an operating budget of $1.3 billion in 2013-14, “has grown way beyond the ability of a group of volunteers,” and Hogue said the only fundamental change would be full-time leadership. The amendment would require that the governor appoint one member who has leadership experience in the private sector and one who holds a professional position within the higher education sector.

“We need a full-time commission, somebody that can gird themselves against all the outside political forces. We don’t have that today. We don’t have evidence that this board has time to think strategically,” Hogue said.

Carlson pointed to the North Dakota Public Service Commission and Industrial Commission as examples of how three-member panels can work well. But Skogen noted those are regulatory bodies, not governing bodies.

Skogen said the amendment’s language is vastly different from the current constitutional language that gives the board full authority over the state’s 11 public colleges and universities.

“(Voters) need to ask, do we want an independent board that has full control over 11 institutions, or do we want a commission of three members that will govern those ‘within statutory requirements and limitations’? So I think the actual control of the institutions does change dramatically with that language,” he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.