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Our view: University leaders need no such support as that offered by State Board of Higher Education member Kathleen Neset

That Neset feels she must support the state’s 10 university presidents – all of whom earn six-figure salaries and, as a group, oversee thousands of employees – by telling them that they must “always maintain the highest level of professionalism” is ridiculous, especially if there is any hint that someone’s leadership skills are in question.

Herald pull quote, 7/3/21
Herald graphic
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State Board of Higher Education member Kathleen Neset is again defending a high-ranking member of the North Dakota University System.

During a Tuesday meeting of the SBHE, Neset took a moment to address what she called “an ongoing complaint” about the leadership of Mayville State University President Brian Van Horn.

Said Neset: “There has been an ongoing complaint coming, I would say, over several years now, that seems to be coming from an anonymous source. We don’t know and we can’t deal with this complaint, because nobody will stand up and put their name to it and deal with the anonymous situation. What I wanted to do with our audit committee and through compliance part of that was to address this issue and support our president.”

She continued: “Basically, what we would like to do as a committee is encourage President Van Horn and all of our presidents to always maintain the highest level of professionalism and always – you are a model for our students and our communities. You are on the clock 24-7. You are the face of your universities, and it’s very important that you keep that utmost in your work and your lifestyle as you work within your campus and your communities. We share that with Dr. Van Horn and all of our presidents.”

This isn’t Neset’s first time dealing with accusations of leadership lapses by an NDUS official.

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In 2017, complaints surfaced about Chancellor Mark Hagerott. After then-Vice Chancellor Lisa Feldner was fired without cause, Feldner filed a claim with the State Department of Labor outlining what she called “blatant mistreatment of employees.” She also claimed Hagerott was being protected by leaders of the SBHE. According to Feldner, when she complained about Hagerott, Neset allegedly responded by saying “I won't have this chancellor going down – not on my watch."

Now, new – albeit anonymous – complaints have arisen about another NDUS leader. I n a story published shortly after Tuesday’s SBHE meeting, the Herald characterized Neset’s comments as a “pointed reminder” to Van Horn, and included details of a forthcoming Herald investigation, including an earlier complaint from 2020. Shortly after the story went online, Neset phoned the reporter to stress that her comments were intended to be in support of Van Horn and that she was disappointed with the newspaper’s coverage.

That Neset feels she must support the state’s 10 university presidents – all of whom earn six-figure salaries and, as a group, oversee thousands of employees – by telling them that they must “always maintain the highest level of professionalism” is ridiculous, especially if there is any hint that someone’s leadership skills are in question.

And since Neset has been the focus of past claims that she chose to overlook accusations of poor leadership only adds to the peculiarity of her Tuesday comments, her subsequent phone call to the Herald and, the next day, a statement she and other board members sent that chastised the newspaper and the reporter.

It’s natural that North Dakotans might be curious to know what, exactly, is going on in our – our – higher education system.

Neset says it was support. To us, it sure seemed like a reminder.

Yet North Dakota’s university presidents should require no such support, nor should any public employee of that high rank and responsibility ever have to be told to “maintain the highest level of professionalism.” In the future, the SBHE needs to consider what it means if any board member feels compelled to make a similar comment.

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