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Jacobs: Back from the brink, the future for the higher ed board

Mike Jacobs

Kirsten Diederich faces an enormous challenge. It's her job to lead the North Dakota Board of Higher Education back from the brink of catastrophe.

For several years, the board has seemed to blunder ever closer, and last session, the Legislature put the abyss right in front of the board. It crafted a constitutional amendment that -- if passed -- will eliminate the board in favor of a three-person commission.

If passed is a critical part of this equation. There's still time to prove to North Dakotans that the board can be an effective way of governing the state's 11 colleges and universities. That was the case for much of the board's 75 years of existence. Unfortunately, the chaos of the past half-decade has obscured the good that the board did. Lamentably, it's also obscured the strength of the colleges and universities themselves.

As president of the board, that's Diederich's challenge.

She made a good start at the board's meeting Wednesday. She pointed out to board members that the crisis is one of governance of the system, not of the quality of its individual units.

Diederich said she's taking the crisis "very seriously."

Two issues loom immediately ahead.

One is a scheduled visit by a national accrediting team. The Higher Learning Commission said it wasn't satisfied with responses the board has supplied so far, so it's sending a team for an advisory visit.

This is an unusual step, and it underlines the nature of the crisis in North Dakota's higher education system. It's a question of governance of the system, not of the individual campuses. If that were the case, the commission would visit the colleges, as it ordinarily does.

The move comes after Ellen Chaffee filed a complaint. Chaffee is well known in the state's higher education circles. She once worked in the system office and was president of Valley City and Mayville State universities. In 2012, she ran for lieutenant governor.

The second issue is the search for a chancellor to replace Hamid Shirvani, who was fired before his first anniversary in the job. Diederich said she hopes a new chancellor can be in place by the end of September.

Successfully resolving these issues -- the chancellor search and the accreditation visit -- will rebuild confidence in the board. A stronger, more focused, more effective board will go a long way toward persuading voters to reject the proposed constitutional amendment.

That's the great challenge of the 15 months before the statewide vote in November 2014.

Jacobs is the publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of

Forum News Service. Email him at