Modest proposals for a stronger higher ed boardIf I were the director of the drama playing out in Bismarck this winter, I’d ask the lighting crew to move the spots just a little, away from the chancellor and on to the State Board of Higher Education itself.
By: Mike Jacobs, Forum News Service
If I were the director of the drama playing out in Bismarck this winter, I’d ask the lighting crew to move the spots just a little, away from the chancellor and on to the State Board of Higher Education itself.
The board must have had a role in the wrongdoings alleged last week. After all, a single individual can’t hold a secret meeting. That takes a committee.
Apparently the board agreed with the idea of an executive committee that would meet to review and discuss items pending before the board. Apparently the board thought it would be all right to have a nice supper and settle matters the night before its public meetings.
These ideas might have come from the chancellor, but he couldn’t carry them off alone.
Put pretty plainly, it takes two to violate the open meetings laws.
This is another example of the board’s weakness.
In an earlier controversy, the board bowed to pressure from the president of North Dakota State University and fired its own chancellor. In this instance, the board seems intent on deferring to a strong chancellor, even it means breaking the law.
What’s needed is a stronger board.
The first reform of North Dakota’s higher education governance should be to make that possible.
We’re not talking about a less independent board here, but a more effective board.
A couple of specific steps should be considered.
One is to widen the pool of potential board members. Currently, a committee accepts applications and forwards three names to the governor who chooses among them.
The committee and the governor ought to be able to recruit potential members.
They ought to be able to go outside the state, too.
The country is full of successful people with North Dakota roots, many of whom are eager to give back to the state that reared them.
Whatever their eagerness, their talent or their experience, they can’t be on the State Board of Higher Education, however, unless they live in North Dakota.
We ought to change that.
At the same time, we ought to pay board members for the work they do. Rather than a modest per diem, members should get a yearly stipend equivalent to what a corporation would pay.
North Dakota would have saved money under this system.
The $850,000 it’s going to cost to buy out the current chancellor’s contract would allow a stipend of $50,000 a year for each of the board members for two years. If the stipend were $20,000 a year, we could pay it to each of the eight members for four years and have money left over.
That doesn’t include the money we’ve spent on earlier buyouts, including a previous chancellor and several college presidents.
It’s probably worth considering another reform, a permanent chair of the board. Under the current system, the chair usually goes to a senior board member who serves only a single year.
It’s probably a good idea to make this permanent chair responsible to the governor and to serve through the governor’s term at the governor’s discretion. This step would give the governor an avenue to communicate with the board and perhaps even to influence its deliberations. It would also provide continuity for board leadership and a focus of authority and responsibility, both of which are lacking now.
Under the current system, the governor takes a hands-off attitude, pleading that the constitution makes the board entirely independent. It’s a ready-made reason to duck any responsibility. That leaves voters and taxpayers without any avenue to influence events.
We want to keep a distance between partisan politics and higher education, of course. Excessive interference by a Depression-Era governor gave birth to the State Board of Higher Education in the first place.
But there’s room for balance here, and room for a gubernatorial role.
Finally, the terms of appointed board members should be longer. Initially members served a single seven-year term. The term was shortened to four years with the possibility — really the likelihood — of reappointment.
The longer term allowed members to become seasoned in their roles. It meant they weren’t threatened by the possibility they wouldn’t be reappointed by the governor or confirmed by the state Senate. This provided stability — the thing that’s most needed in the higher education system.
Jacobs is publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.