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Accrediting agency concerned about proposed ND higher ed changes

The group that accredits North Dakota’s 11 state colleges and universities is concerned about a proposal to change the structure of higher education governance.

Voters will decide in November whether to replace the current eight-member volunteer State Board of Higher Education with a commission of three full-time members.

Without details of how the new structure would be implemented, the Higher Learning Commission said the proposal could affect the system’s accreditation.

“I believe the proposed structure as described in the legislation raises questions about whether, once the structure goes into effect, the institutions would be in compliance with the Commission’s requirements on governance,” HLC President Sylvia Manning wrote in a January letter to the North Dakota Legislative Council.

Karen Solinski, the HLC’s vice president for legal and government affairs, said it is premature to say the institutions’ accreditation is at-risk. But she said on its face, without more information, the proposed change raises questions.

Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said the commission structure shouldn’t be a concern because its members would be appointed using the same criteria as the Board of Higher Education.

He said the main difference is that the commission will have three full-time members instead of an eight-member volunteer board. He said business as usual at the state’s 11 campuses won’t change.

“The change is quite minimal,” he said. “We’ll have full-time people who will be running our higher education system.”

During the HLC’s visit to the system last April, Solinski said the review team planned to gather more information about the proposed change and its intent.

If the change is approved, the institutions will need to submit an application to the accrediting agency for approval of the new governance structure, she said.

The HLC would need to review and approve the change by the legislation’s July 1, 2015, implementation date.

“At the end of the day, in order for us to continue accrediting the institutions, we have to make sure our governance requirements will continue to be met after the new structure goes into place,” Solinski said.

One of the HLC’s criteria for accreditation requires an institution’s governing board to be independent “from undue influence on the part of donors, elected officials, ownership interests, or other external parties when such influence would not be in the best interest of the institution.”

Under the proposed new structure, the governor would appoint commissioners to four-year terms from a list of nominees approved by several public officials including the speaker of the state House, the president pro tempore of the Senate, the chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court, the superintendent of public instruction and a representative from an educational interest group.

Sen. David Hogue, the Minot Republican who proposed the commission structure, said the accreditation concerns are a “red herring.”

He said the commission would have the same autonomy as the current board and would meet the HLC’s governing criteria.

“There’s nothing in the measure that disrupts that autonomy,” Hogue said.

While proponents of the new structure say it’s a small change, Solinski said a structure overhaul of this magnitude is rare for public colleges.

‘It’s a very unusual case,” she said. “We haven’t had a system change its governance structure in this way.”