FARGO – Thirty-six of North Dakota State University’s deans, directors and department heads have undergone a highly thorough job evaluation, often called a 360 review, in the past five years.

But the president of NDSU, and the state’s other public college and universities, has never been subject to reviews that thorough and might not ever be.

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Former state Board of Higher Education Chairwoman Kirsten Diederich, who resigned earlier this week, said if the Legislature doesn’t pass a proposal to close all records used to prepare evaluations of university presidents, the board won’t do 360 reviews of the presidents.

Generally, 360 reviews solicit a wider range of feedback than a typical job evaluation, including peers, subordinates, clients and supervisors. Per NDSU policy, the evaluations of many top campus officials happen at least every three years and solicit input from “faculty, chairs, peer administrators, and others including classified staff, students, recent graduates, and external constituencies, if appropriate.”

Though documents regarding the 360-like reviews at NDSU do not receive special protection, higher ed board members say they can’t garner honest, quality feedback of university presidents without it.

Why 360 reviews? Those familiar with them say they have a greater impact on behavior than standard reviews and offer broad insight, rather than one person’s opinion.

But they’re not without their challenges.

‘A balky system’

In the North Dakota University System, presidential reviews of any nature have been in limbo since the buyout of Chancellor Hamid Shirvani, whose harsh reviews of presidents in 2013 were later disclaimed by the board.

At that time, Shirvani called for 360 reviews of North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani and University of North Dakota President Robert Kelley, saying they had been presidents long enough to warrant them.

The board had never done 360 reviews for presidents, and the chairman at the time said no one was “real crazy about them.”

A year later, though, the Higher Learning Commission evaluated the board and called its approach to presidential reviews “a balky system of evaluation,” according to a report released in August.

The accreditation agency said evaluations had been “mishandled” and noted that board members described Shirvani’s reviews as “not objective and lacking requisite dialogue.”

Presidents also told a visiting team from the HLC that they had “no clear performance goals to pursue” and weren’t being evaluated against agreed upon goals.

Now, the board is considering 360 reviews not only for Bresciani and Kelley but for all university presidents.

360-degree process

The main difference between 360 reviews and other types of evaluations is the sheer number of people consulted.

At Sanford Medical Center in Fargo, 360 reviews court feedback from peers, managers, direct reports and sometimes customers, said Michael Danielson, who works in human resources there.

That wide spread of sources allows a leader to see many opinions and shows whether there are trends, Danielson said.

“Especially if the person at the top is overseen by a board of directors, they’re not gonna have that daily interaction or see what it’s like to work with them on a regular basis,” said Jessica Shawn, president of the F-M Human Resource Association.

Diederich has said that for presidents, the reviewing group could include the chancellor, alumni, lawmakers, university employees and students.

Such an extensive review brings challenges, though, and “sometimes the 360s get a lot of bad press when they’re not done particularly well,” Danielson said.

Jill Minette, human resources director for the city of Fargo, which does not do 360 reviews, said they require a great deal of training to ensure people are “truly prepared for the process.”

“Unless (reviewers) are trained to give productive feedback and constructive feedback, that can create some barriers between (the leader) and that individual,” she said.

Anonymous reviewers

At both NDSU and Sanford, reviewers are anonymous.

That way, they aren’t afraid of upsetting a boss or hurting a friendship, Danielson said. “You give that ability for people to truly speak their mind.”

Diederich has cited similar reasons for wanting to close documents related to presidents’ reviews.

“Anybody who’s evaluating their boss needs to be able to have the freedom to voice their concerns without it ending up as a headline in a newspaper,” she said.

The final evaluations, after vetting from the board, would be public, under the proposed bill.

But critics say the public has a right to see records early in the process, too.

“I understand that being able to do these things in private would make the job easier,” said Steve Andrist, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association. “But I don’t think the point of public service is to find a way to make it easier as it is to find a way to make it good.”

Andrist was also concerned that under the bill’s wording, too many documents could go dark.

“If we’re going to remove access to any documents that would or could be used in a 360 evaluation of a president, you could make an argument that they could include any kind of document at all.”