Consultant says higher ed board needs stronger leadership: Comments come after public is asked to leave meeting
GRAND FORKS — A consultant has told the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education it has improving to do when it comes to leadership and relationships with the public and college presidents.
“Here’s how I see the board: The board is running scared, nervous, playing it safe and voting close to the vest,” said Tom Meredith, a consultant with Penson Associates and a former chancellor of two state university systems.
The discussion came in the midst of a July 30 meeting that some allege violated open meetings law.
In a recording of the retreat requested by the Grand Forks Herald last week, board President Kirsten Diederich can be heard asking everyone but board members and legal counsel to leave the room so the board could have a conversation with Meredith.
“We would like to be board only. We will have our legal counsel here to make sure we are not conducting business of any type, but it would be our request that you give us a little time to be with Tom alone,” Diederich said. “However, you have the right to stay if you like.”
Once people had presumably left, the group discussed several problems highlighted by Meredith, including a perceived lack of leadership by the board, trust issues with the public and college presidents, and holding those presidents accountable.
The move seemed to come at Meredith’s suggestion.
“I was saying to Kirsten yesterday or the day before, I wonder if it might be helpful for you all to have a conversation without everybody else being in the room,” he said shortly after Diederich’s announcement.
Meredith said Tuesday that he was invited to the retreat by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, of which the State Board of Higher Education is a member.
The focus of the discussion was best practices for boards, he said.
“I was very impressed with the board. They really want to be — I mean they are a good board — but they really want to be a great board,” Meredith said Tuesday. “I applaud them for even initiating this and going through with it. They really want to do the right thing.”
While he said he did not prepare a formal report or evaluation for the retreat, he did discuss ways the board could improve itself and its relationships with the public and colleges.
“It seems to me people are saying to you, ‘You’re not providing the leadership we need to have to run these universities,’” Meredith said at the retreat. “People want you to provide leadership that you’re supposed to provide. They’re looking for that.”
He added that the public would likely be excited about seeing strong leadership from the board and having the public’s trust would keep initiatives such as Measure 3, which seeks to abolish the State Board of Higher Education, from arising as a form of criticism.
Meredith also suggested board members find ways to restore trust with college presidents and reaffirm its authority over them.
Two of Meredith’s ideas were engaging presidents more in discussion and processes and not assuming two or three presidents that “aren’t playing ball” with the board represent the mindset of the entire group.
At least one board member said he does struggle with trusting information submitted by campuses and presidents. Meredith suggested using impartial parties to crunch data in order to erase that unease.
“We need to trust them, they need to trust us, we need to trust each other — that’s what we’re missing,” Diederich said.
While restoring that trust seems to be one future goal coming out of the retreat, board member Grant Shaft suggested another.
“This board has never known how to hold anybody accountable,” he said. “Short of a crime, no one is ever held accountable.”
Meredith agreed, adding that the board should be prepared to set goals and deliver the bad news to schools if those goals aren’t fulfilled and to properly address defiance from presidents.
“You’ve got, from my observations — observation only, I don’t have any facts — you’ve got one president who’s striking out on his own, maybe one or two more,” he said. “That will have to be dealt with at some point in time and the sooner the better.”
While the retreat conversation included talks of rebuilding public trust, the board’s move to ask the public to leave during that discussion has drawn criticism.
Rob Port, editor of the Say Anything Blog, filed a complaint July 31 with the state attorney general’s office, alleging the board violated open meetings law with that request.
In an Aug. 7 letter, the attorney general’s office asked Diederich for a response to the complaint. The board has 15 days from the letter’s date to respond.
If the board does not respond, the attorney general can issue an opinion without its input.
A call to the North Dakota University System office regarding the complaint went unanswered Tuesday afternoon.