Board’s discussion with consultant was public, University System staff says
GRAND FORKS — A conversation between the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education and a consultant was always meant to be public, according to North Dakota University System staff.
“This is not a secret tape of a secret meeting,” interim Chancellor Larry Skogen said of an audio recording made public Tuesday. “This is public tape of a public meeting.”
The conversation, in which consultant Tom Meredith told board members, among other things, to show stronger leadership, occurred during a retreat held July 30-31 in Bismarck.
Meredith, a consultant with California-based firm Penson Associates and former chancellor of two state university systems, was asked to attend the retreat to provide training to board members, according to Skogen.
“There have been a lot of complaints about how the board operates,” Skogen said. “We’ve had many conversations about how we would improve the board’s conduct, and so we thought we ought to have some board training.”
On the recording, board President Kirsten Diederich can be heard asking audience members to leave the room but reminding them they do have the right to stay. While the meeting was open to the public, University System spokeswoman Linda Donlin said Wednesday that the audience was composed of University System staff members and university presidents.
During the board’s retreat, Meredith decided to “take off the gloves” and give the board an honest assessment, Skogen said.
“It was a very frank conversation,” said Skogen, who wasn’t present for the discussion but heard secondhand from board members.
Meredith’s discussion focused on a perceived lack of leadership by the board, trust issues with the public and college presidents and holding those presidents accountable.
“You’ve just got to be careful about every message you send,” Meredith said. “But it’s time to step up. The public is crying — I think they’re crying for you to step up.”
Part of the group’s conversation included Meredith mentioning troubling behavior he’s observed from unnamed college presidents.
Diederich declined to comment on the identity of the presidents in question. She did say getting the conversation out in the open about the board’s and presidents’ mistrust for one another would allow everyone to move forward.
“I think the trust issue definitely needed to be talked out,” Diederich said. “We’ve been a split board for about a year and a half or two years — not that you need consensus — but we need to rebuild that trust between board members and the board and the presidents.”
University of North Dakota President Robert Kelley declined to comment Wednesday on the board’s discussion, and messages left for North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani were not immediately returned.
Board members also briefly voiced concerns about Skogen serving as both president of Bismarck State College and interim chancellor.
Skogen, who said he had not listened to the recording, said he has had to make some tough calls as chancellor and that the presidents and the board have been supportive.
“We’re all working toward the same ends,” he said.
At the end of the day, the July 31 conversation with Meredith was necessary for the board to move forward and improve itself, according to Diederich.
“We are a good board, but we want to be a better board,” she said.
Meredith’s appearance follows criticism the public and the state Legislature have voiced recently, including some legislators’ concerns that the board functions as a rubber stamp for university presidents.
During part of his time with the board and University System staff, Meredith highlighted the characteristics of a highly effective higher education board. He also told members that higher education boards are shifting their governance models.
“The governing body is stepping back from management that might have occurred in the past and only measuring outcomes,” Diederich said, adding that the North Dakota board is very interested in joining this movement.
Outcomes analyzed by this system would include data such as graduation and retention rates.
Diederich admitted the management arrangement of the past few years has caused tension between the board and campuses.
July’s training session was the second the State Board of Higher Education has completed this year, with a third planned for October, Skogen said.
Talking about its problems at the retreat also gives the board a fresh start, Diederich said.
“We really felt like we came together, and we left that session stronger than we’ve ever been,” she said, adding that the representatives from the 11 University System institutions agreed to move forward in the same direction at the retreat.
Though the board is moving ahead and shifting focus to its strategic plan, it still faces a hitch in the form of hiring a chancellor. Skogen said he believes the board is awaiting the outcome of the November election.
Up for public vote is Measure 3, which would abolish the State Board of Higher Education and replace it with a three-person commission. Diederich said she is confident there will be a board after the election.
“We are moving forward to do what is the best for our institution and our students as if nothing is happening,” she added.
In the meantime, the board will be responding to a complaint filed with the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office alleging Meredith’s conversation with the board was part of an illegal executive session.
According to Diederich, there was no intent of turning it into an executive session.
“It was more of a courtesy request” that would allow the board time alone with Meredith at his request, she said.
Rob Port, editor of the Say Anything Blog, filed the complaint July 31. Diederich received a letter Aug. 7 saying the board had 15 days to respond from the letter’s date.
North Dakota state law indicates that to close a meeting, a group must announce its legal authority to close in both a notice and at the meeting and vote to close the meeting.
No announcement of a closed meeting, official motion to close the meeting or vote is heard on the recording.