The North Dakota State Board of Higher Education’s annual self-evaluation, which was generally positive this year, reveals that board members would like to see improvements in how they communicate with each other.
The report, which is 20 pages long, includes discussion about the board’s policies and effectiveness, as well as the board members' relationship with the chancellor.
Eight of the 10 board members responded to the survey. Comments in the report are not attributed to specific board members.
Outgoing chairman Don Morton said the annual survey allows the board to find room for improvement. Morton will remain on the board for another year. Nick Hacker will become chair of the board in July.
“In this world of continual improvement, no matter what organization you’re a part of, you always want to keep getting better, so we get some good insights (from the survey),” said Morton, who praised board members for their work and the time they spend discussing various topics.
“We really have a good board,” Morton said. “They’re very engaged. … They come to meetings very prepared. We also have good discussions. We aren’t always in complete agreement, which I think is healthy.”
Overwhelmingly, board members expressed that great progress was made this year with regard to the regular review and update of policies, according to the report. However, board members offered slightly mixed responses on the clarity of the board’s goals.
One member pointed to being “not so sure” whether the state board had clear goals, noting a hard time listing two to three of them. The person added the goals of the board should be made more clear.
“The SBHE should support students and employees of the system more, though I have seen improvement in this area,” the member wrote.
Overall, members stated they had a positive relationship with NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott. Nearly all of the members said interaction and communication with Hagerott has been strong and effective over the past year and that Hagerott often shares relevant information with the board regarding statewide, regional and national trends in higher education. However, board members noted there is room for improvement.
“I think it is a strong partnership. I also think sometimes there are more things decided in the system office that I would like to see SBHE approval on, in particular, mid-term evaluations of one of our presidents,” one member wrote. “I wish SHBE board members would have pushed harder for changes to the chancellor’s evaluation of that president.”
While the report included fairly positive remarks overall, one area in need of improvement is board members’ ability to communicate with each other and the public, according to the survey.
“There appears to be a lack of trust from the governor, the Legislature and even presidents, because they are irritated with something we have done or have not done,” a member wrote. “Some of the things they do/try to do make it harder to be successful.”
The member said the board needs to “know what is legislated, that we cannot change, and what the board can move to the presidents/campuses to more effectively make decisions.” The same member added that communication also needs to improve within the board so members are better informed.
“There appears to be an inside group and an outside group within the board, where some members know more about what is going on,” the individual said. “This can be troublesome if a member gets a call regarding an issue -- they should know what is going on. No one wants to be an uninformed board member. Communication at the top level needs to be broader, without wasting the chancellor’s time.”
The state’s open meetings law, which requires there to be public notice if a quorum of a government committee will be meeting, can be a hindrance for some board work, particularly on a committee level, Hacker said.
Board committees are typically limited to three members each. So, if two board members have lunch together they cannot legally speak about higher education topics because it would be a violation of the open meetings laws. This makes communication outside of meetings difficult, Hacker said.
“We’re looking at ways of enhancing the number of committee members to lift the total count so that committee members can have a conversation,” Hacker said.
The open records laws also have an impact on succession planning for the system. Morton said the board would like to implement comprehensive succession plans at each school, but those documents would be available for public consumption under the open records law.
“Every leader has to ask, ‘Who is your successor?’ But in order to do that the presidents, I don’t blame them, they don’t want to put in writing who’s (on the list) and have it be a public record,” he said.
Formal succession plans would make it easier for universities and the SBHE to identify future leadership, Morton said.
One member agreed with Morton and Hacker’s assessment.
“We as a board should have an open discussion about open meetings,” one member wrote. “The Legislature and the (North Dakota) citizens should hear our discussion. The way we do things is not the best way. There are roadblocks from (the) Legislature to us and from us to the presidents and we must identify these to be successful."