ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

OUR OPINION: Catch higher ed shoe before it drops

North Dakota State University students, alumni and supporters should welcome the university's recently announced hiring freeze. In fact, NDSU fans should call on college officials to give the budget even more scrutiny, maybe even a full-blown audit.

North Dakota State University students, alumni and supporters should welcome the university's recently announced hiring freeze.

In fact, NDSU fans should call on college officials to give the budget even more scrutiny, maybe even a full-blown audit. And UND shouldn't think it's off the hook: The administration should use NDSU's announcement as an excuse to check and recheck its own figures, making very sure everything adds up.

The reason can be found earlier this week in a seemingly unrelated story, which ran under the headline, "Lawmakers reject cost overrun on NDSU president's home."

The 28-12 vote in Bismarck reflected the North Dakota Legislature's simmering anger at and resentment of university management, especially at NDSU (although UND is not immune).

That anger has bubbled up several times in recent years, starting with the controversy that led to the resignation of former University System Chancellor Robert Potts. And if it boils over -- as it might do if, say, NDSU's new interim president discovers more serious shortfalls in the budget-- then watch out.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Legislature can, if it wants to, wield a very big stick: It can reverse the policies inspired by the Roundtable Report, the landmark study that led to the university system winning "flexibility with accountability."

Some frustrated lawmakers have threatened to do just that in recent years and even have introduced legislation to that effect. The laws haven't passed, thank goodness. In fact, lawmakers instead followed the recommendations of Gov. John Hoeven and others and dramatically increased appropriations to the university system.

But that increased "flexibility" demands even more "accountability" if the system is going to work.

And in the wake of the cost overruns at the presidents' houses, the revelations of former NDSU President Joe Chapman's spending habits and the news of budget shortfalls at NDSU -- shortfalls that follow, remember, the state ramping up spending on NDSU and the other campuses -- anything can happen in Bismarck.

It might not take much more bad news to convince a majority of lawmakers that the university system can't manage itself, and the Legislature should reassert its authority. North Dakota's college presidents and the State Board of Higher Education should do everything they can to avoid this outcome; and the best way to do that is to make sure that the books balance, the money is accounted for and the record-keeping is transparent and squeaky clean.

The temporary hiring freeze announced by NDSU's interim president is a step in the right direction. It's a sign that the university is acknowledging the costs as well as the benefits of the rapid growth Chapman inspired.

The state board also should consider getting involved, given the fact that the shortfall apparently took board members by surprise -- never a good thing.

Why the surprise? For that matter, why did the shortfall surface mere weeks after Chapman departed and interim president Dick Hanson took office? Was that timing coincidence, or had Chapman been painting a too-rosy picture of NDSU's finances?

ADVERTISEMENT

To keep its prized flexibility, the higher education system now must deliver full and robust accountability. That means avoiding scandals by virtue of careful, responsible and utterly transparent governance.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

What To Read Next