Matters At Hand: The higher ed debate we should be havingNorth Dakota’s Legislature appears to be working up to a confrontation about governing higher education in the state, but by fits and starts.
By: Mike Jacobs, Forum News Service
North Dakota’s Legislature appears to be working up to a confrontation about governing higher education in the state, but by fits and starts.
There was a fit Saturday. Representatives of students enrolled at public colleges and universities passed a motion of no confidence in Chancellor Hamid Shirvani.
There were other fits. One happened when a legislative committee voted to strip money for new employees out of the higher education system’s budget. Another occurred as legislators imagined forbidding the system from transferring money from individual college budgets to fund employees in the system office.
Then there was the big start — the one that set off the current controversy. The state Senate Appropriations Committee demanded an explanation about changes in the plans for a system building on the University of North Dakota campus in Grand Forks.
So far, though, no one has confronted the question at the heart of the issue.
So let’s do it here.
Is the chancellor system a failure?
And the follow-up question, perhaps a better one: What would replace it? And would it be better?
North Dakota adopted the chancellor system a couple of decades ago. The idea originated in a legislative initiative called “The Roundtable.” The idea was to create a single system of higher education, with all of the state’s colleges and universities answering to a single officer who in turn would answer to the State Board of Higher Education.
This structure mirrored what had preceded it — except that it effectively removed legislators from the details of higher education funding. Instead of meddling, they’d be expected to approve the overall budget, then leave administration to the chancellor and the board. College presidents were expected to report to the chancellor and the board, and not to the Legislature.
This worked well enough under the first chancellor, Tom Clifford, who had been president of UND. Clifford was widely respected, mostly because he understood how to interact with legislators.
This happy circumstance did not endure, however. The board fired one chancellor after a confrontation with the president of North Dakota State University. Another chancellor, and the board, overlooked abuses on a couple of campuses — a diploma mill in one case and lavish, self-centered spending in another.
At the same time, lawmakers became concerned about whether the higher education system was connected to the state’s economy in any meaningful way. They wondered about “outcomes,” a code word for whether students were graduating on time and with degrees that would lead to real-world jobs.
Against this backdrop, the state board decided to take firm action. The board hired Shirvani, directed him to reform the system and promised him support. In other words, the board tried to seize the initiative, turn aside the criticism and end the chaos.
While the chancellor system is recent, there is a deeper history.
Voters entrenched the State Board of Higher Education in the state constitution after a purge of faculty at the agricultural college, now NDSU, in 1937. That did protect the campuses from political interference, but, for many years, the board functioned as a rubber stamp for college presidents, who ran their institutions as fiefdoms. Often, the board had little to do beyond approving the color of wall paper in college dormitory rooms. When real issues arose — such as new courses or new initiatives — board members supported the presidents. The presidents prepared and presented budgets for their schools, and appropriations were worked out among legislative leaders, who often rewarded institutions in their own towns.
The chancellor system put an end to that, pretty much.
More important, it put forward the idea of a unified system governed by a board that could make real decisions about initiatives and investments.
The result was a blossoming of higher education across the state — more entrepreneurship among faculty, more programs aimed at real-world situations, less backroom negotiating and secret deal making.
But more controversy.
Politics is the passion of the moment, of course, so it’s no surprise that Chancellor Shirvani and his leadership style have dominated legislative discussion and newspaper headlines.
A quick backward glance shows that Shirvani alone is not the issue, however unsettling his personal style. The real issues are whether the chancellor system is better than what we had before, and whether it can work and what the consequences will be if it doesn’t.
That’s the debate we ought to be having.
Jacobs is the publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.