Majority leader: Senate’s integrity ‘on the line’ in higher ed board confirmations
BISMARCK - Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner says "the integrity of the Senate is on the line" in upcoming confirmation hearings for State Board of Higher Education President Kirsten Diederich and another board member, after a string of controv...
BISMARCK – Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner says “the integrity of the Senate is on the line” in upcoming confirmation hearings for State Board of Higher Education President Kirsten Diederich and another board member, after a string of controversies within the North Dakota University System .
Wardner, R-Dickinson, said Diederich and board member Kevin Melicher, both of Fargo, will face more in-depth questioning than board appointees have in the past, and the hearings will be more high-profile.
“It’s never been an issue, but all of a sudden it’s become an issue. Higher ed is kind of under a microscope,” he said.
A five-member Senate review panel – three Republicans and two Democrats – will conduct a hearing for Diederich at 3 p.m. Jan. 27 in the Brynhild Haugland Room at the state Capitol, one of the larger meeting rooms on the Capitol’s ground floor. The hearing for Melicher will be at 3 p.m. Jan. 28 in the same room.
In the past, such hearings were held in a small Senate conference room and weren’t widely publicized beforehand, Wardner said. The review panel makes a recommendation on whether a board member appointed by the governor should be confirmed, which requires a majority vote of the full Senate.
Wardner, a retired educator who has served in the Senate since 1999 and is in his second session as majority leader, said he doesn’t like that the Senate has been criticized as a “rubber stamp” for the governor’s board appointments.
“The integrity of the Senate is on the line as far as I’m concerned, and as long as I’m the leader, I don’t need anybody making fun of the Senate,” he said, adding that Diederich and Melicher “will have an opportunity to be on the record and defend themselves.”
Diederich, who recently retired as an assistant professor of biology at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., was appointed to the Board of Higher Education in 2010 by then-Gov. John Hoeven. A Senate review panel voted 3-1 against appointing her, but the full Senate confirmed her on a 36-10 vote in February 2011.
Diederich took over as board president on July 1, 2013, shortly after the board’s $925,000-plus buyout of former system chancellor Hamid Shirvani after clashes over his management style. Gov. Jack Dalrymple reappointed Diederich to the board in May 2014, but several controversies have arisen during her tenure, including an online security breach and open meetings violations.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem found that the board violated the state’s open meetings laws at least four times in 2013, and again during an interview with the Higher Learning Commission in April and during a July 30 meeting when Diederich asked everyone but board members and legal counsel to leave the room so a consultant could speak only to board members.
Several individual campuses also have had their share of controversies.
“There’ve been some things that have happened, the open meetings violations, some other things that have happened in higher ed that may or may not be the fault of the board, but the buck stops with the board,” Wardner said.
Diederich did not immediately return a message left on her cell phone Tuesday morning.
In a statement through a spokesman Tuesday, Dalrymple said, “The board has had some issues, but I don’t see a reason why she should not be allowed to continue to serve.”
Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said the concern among some senators about confirming Diederich is, “If we condone her leadership over the last year and a half, then we own the problem and it’s ours.”
Melicher, an optometrist, was appointed by Dalrymple on May 20 and began serving on the board July 1. His term expires June 30, 2018, as does Diederich’s term.
When it was suggested that denying the confirmations could send a message from the Republican-controlled Senate that Dalrymple, also a Republican, made a bad choice in his appointments, Wardner said, “I guess you could look at it like that.
“We’re not out looking to not confirm them, but we also want to do the job that we’ve been asked to do,” he said.
University System Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen, who was out sick Tuesday, also issued a statement through a spokesperson, saying Diederich “has done great things in moving higher education forward” and voicing his support of her confirmation.
“It’s the Senate’s role to confirm her appointment, and we hope they will take her dedication and her accomplishments into consideration as they deliberate,” he said.
The board hasseven citizen members appointed to four-year terms and one student member appointed by the governor to a one-year term. A faculty adviser and a staff adviser serve as non-voting members.
On Monday, Dalrymple appointed Nicholas Hacker of Bismarck and Greg Stemen of Fort Ransom to the board effective July 1 to replace outgoing members Terry Hjelmstad of Minot and Grant Shaft of Grand Forks. Their confirmation hearings will be held sometime after bill crossover, which is Feb. 27, Wardner said.