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Mike Jacobs: Higher ed board plays defense

Leaders of the Board of Higher Education were remarkably defensive last week, even for a group that has been so often under siege. The evidence appeared in a single issue of the Grand Forks Herald, in a front-page story and in a letter to the editor, both printed on Oct. 12.

The letter wasn't a surprise. Board chair Don Morton and his predecessor, past chair Kathy Neset, reacted to a critical editorial that the Herald published Oct. 6, the previous Friday.

"We look forward to Dr. Hagerott's continued service as our chancellor," Morton and Neset wrote.

This follows a meeting in which board members considered a motion to look more deeply into Mark Hagerott's performance as chancellor. The motion failed to pass, but four of the board's eight members supported it. One wonders if they were consulted about the content of the board leadership's letter.

The second instance of defensiveness was out of the ordinary. The board is considering changing both the time and place of its meetings. Instead of meeting monthly, the board would meet quarterly, only four times a year instead of 12. All meetings would be in Bismarck rather than rotating among the state's 11 college and university campuses, as is current practice.

Board Chair Morton "described the possible shift as a push 'to be more efficient,'" the Herald's Andrew Hafner reported.

This drew criticism from the association representing higher education faculty. The group's president, Debra Dragseth, said she was "disappointed" by the proposal.

"My personal opinion is that when you agree to be on the board and serve the state in that way, you should go all in," she said. Dragseth teaches at Dickinson State University.

The frequency of board meetings may make little difference; it is the character of the meetings that's important. That's drawn criticism, too.

Board agendas are so packed that issues on some campuses are overlooked. Ray Nadolny, who served as president of Williston State College, made that point in his book, "Resilient." He was especially critical of the time spent discussing UND's nickname and logo, an issue that distracted the board from important academic, financial and governance issues. Nadolny's insight is hardly unique to him. Other campus presidents have raised it, too, and the criticism isn't limited to small campuses.

Another issue is the openness of meetings. This became a big issue under previous board leadership; the current board has worked hard to operate within the state's broad open meetings laws. Less frequent meetings could interfere with that effort, though. Morton suggested board members would be able to socialize the evening before its quarterly meetings. The danger, of course, is that issues might be resolved there, then merely ratified at the meeting itself.

Still another threat is to accessibility.

While holding all meetings in Bismarck might seem efficient, it makes attendance more difficult, especially in winter months when travel can be chancy. Even without blowing snow, however, faculty and others interested in the board's business might be reluctant to make a trip to Bismarck.

Morton also hinted that the board might meet "digitally," and that it might depend more on committees to examine issues and make recommendations for a consent agenda. Either of these steps would make observation of the board and participation in its deliberations more difficult for the public and the press.

Regular meetings in Bismarck would mean that board members themselves likely would spend less time on the campuses. They'd be poorer for the lack of interaction with the individual branches of their enterprise.

Limiting the venue and frequency of meetings will have other consequences. It could encourage campus presidents to proceed with their plans rather than consulting the board. Probably it will reduce the amount of interaction board members have with individual presidents. These could be steps toward the commissioner system that North Dakota used for half a century.

Legislators might like that. Some have already suggested it. Presidents might like it, too, but such a move could stop any momentum toward a unified system that the state undertook in 1990.

Board members might find their lives easier if meetings were less frequent, and that might attract more candidates interested in serving on the board.

These advances — if that's what they are — must be weighed against the risk that the board will become more distant from the work that's done on campus, the important work of educating students for lives of insight, engagement and productive citizenship.

Plus, the change — if it happens — is unlikely to dampen criticism of the board's role or diminish the defensiveness of the board itself.

Wrong again

Only eight of the state colleges and universities are specifically listed in the state constitution. Colleges in Bismarck, Devils Lake and Williston were founded as community colleges supported by local taxpayers. They were absorbed into the state system by legislative action.

Mike Jacobs is a retired editor and publisher of the Herald. His email is mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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