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North Dakota University System prepares for HLC evaluation

FARGO -- The North Dakota University System is preparing for the scrutiny of the Higher Learning Commission -- the group that accredits its 11 colleges and universities.

Representatives from the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission will travel to North Dakota this fall to evaluate the University System's governance and its relationship with the institutions it oversees after a complaint earlier this year.

The State Board of Higher Education discussed measures it's taking to address the issues in the complaint during its meeting Friday.

In an April letter to the Higher Learning Commission, former Valley City State University President Ellen Chaffee claimed the actions of the state board and the University System chancellor did not comply with the commission's accreditation criteria.

The president of the Higher Learning Commission asked that the state board write back detailing how it was addressing allegations in the complaint.

The first response did not adequately address those issues, acting Chancellor Larry Skogen told the board Friday.

Now he and a small team are working to draft a new letter that acknowledges mistakes made and highlights how those issues will be avoided in the future.

Kirsten Franzen, chief compliance officer for the University System, said it was important to be forthcoming in the letter.

"We want to be honest about things we could have done better and be specific about how we are going to work on some of these issues," Franzen said.

The draft letter presented at the meeting Friday suggests modifying a policy that requires presidents to support and adhere to the chancellor's directives, providing opportunities for the presidents to speak directly to the state board about concerns and communication training.

The board already has completed some of the suggested corrective actions -- like a meeting with the state attorney general to gain a better understanding of open meetings laws. The original complaint alleged that the board violated the Open Meetings Act, which was in turn a violation of the Higher Learning Commission's standard that member institutions operate with integrity.

Skogen and board members acknowledged that the high turnover in the University System office and other issues were at least partially solved by former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani's departure.

Skogen said the group plans to discuss the draft letter and the suggested improvements with stakeholders like the college presidents.

The letter will come before the board a second time before it is submitted to the Higher Learning Commission in October in advance of the fall visit.