FARGO – Saying she wanted to avoid a distracting fight over her confirmation, the chairwoman of the state Board of Higher Education submitted her resignation to the governor Wednesday.
“It was a very difficult decision to make because I believe we have done some great work in the last year and a half,” Kirsten Diederich said.
Diederich, who had been on the board since 2010, said she realized after the legislative session began that her reappointment was a point of controversy. The purpose of her resignation was to put the focus back on students, she said.
“I felt as if we were just getting the momentum going, that we were going to get back on track talking about higher education and not putting out fires all the time, and I think my confirmation brought another fire to put out,” she said.
In her resignation letter to Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Wednesday, Diederich wrote that her confirmation hearing would “likely become a forum for a power struggle.”
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, who earlier this week said the integrity of the Senate was “on the line” in the upcoming confirmation hearings for Diederich and board appointee Kevin Melicher, was surprised by her resignation, saying all indications were that she intended to go through the confirmation process.
A review hearing by a five-member panel had been set for Jan. 28. The panel makes a recommendation to the full Senate, which must confirm the governor’s appointments to the board that oversees the state’s 11 public colleges and universities.
Wardner said Tuesday that he didn’t like that the Senate had been criticized as a “rubber stamp” for the governor’s appointments, and that Diederich and Melicher would face more in-depth questioning than past appointees.
Diederich visited Bismarck Monday and made her decision after meeting with legislators and the governor, interim Chancellor Larry Skogen said.
“I didn’t realize until the session started that there was movement and groundswell of dissatisfaction,” she said Wednesday.
Diederich said she worried that, as former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani had distracted legislators in the 2013 session, she would distract them in this one.
“I was becoming a center of attention, and that’s not where I need to be,” she said. “Our institutions and our system should be the center of attention, not a single board member.”
Shirvani’s management style and attempts to exercise more centralized control were criticized by many university presidents and some lawmakers. In June 2013, he left the post with a contract buyout worth more than $925,000.
Diederich, of Fargo, was an assistant professor of biology at Concordia College in Moorhead before recently retiring. She has been the board’s president since July 2013.
“You have to applaud her for wanting to get the conversation in the Legislature back to the students,” said Skogen, who called Diederich’s resignation “a personal decision.”
Dalrymple said the same in a statement, noting Diederich “chose to resign to get the focus back on students, and that’s how she served – with a focus on students.”
Both Diederich and legislators acknowledged the board’s history of conflict with the state Legislature.
“I think that there’s been a disconnect for a number of years there, and it just came to a head during my tenure on the board,” she said. “Even though the vote on Measure 3 was favorable for the board, it appears the Legislature is still not favorable toward the board.”
Measure 3 would have replaced the board with a different system of governance for higher education, and did not pass in November’s election.
“Clearly this did not start with her by any means,” said Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He added that the board’s reputation of open meetings violations and other controversies “was earned largely by those who went before her.”
Others were more critical. Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, one of the three senators on a four-person review panel that recommended rejecting Diederich’s appointment in 2011, said he felt “like she did not really understand that there was a large amount of challenges in higher ed” that lawmakers felt were not being addressed by the board.
“And because of that, things didn’t get better, they got worse, and so now here we are,” Miller said.
Wardner said legislators would “stay on course” with their plan to review board appointments with a higher degree of scrutiny.
“Just because (Diederich) decided not to do it doesn’t mean we’re going to go back to doing it like we did in the past,” he said. “We’re going to ask the tough questions.”
“The policy concerns that we have with the board still have to be addressed,” said Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, who referred to Diederich’s resignation as “the writing on the wall.”
Board member Melicher, a Fargo optometrist who has been in office since July and whose hearing is Jan. 28, said he welcomed the scrutiny.
“If I am judged on what I’ve done in the past,” said the former Fargo school board member, “so be it. I’m very proud of the background that I bring to the board.”
Melicher also applauded Diederich for “trying to get our car out of the ditch.”
Diederich said she hoped the new board, whose appointees were announced this week, would be able to “mend this relationship with the Legislature.”
Vice Chairman Terry Hjelmstad will take her place in the meantime, and the board might have a special meeting to discuss options, Skogen said.