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Other views: Serious concerns dog higher-ed reform plan

Events last week swung spotlights around to the proposal to revamp North Dakota’s higher-education governance. And the hot lights illuminated key flaws in the proposal.

The first event was one that North Dakota voters and leaders alike should take note of. It was the warning that the proposal “raises questions” about the accreditation of North Dakota’s 11 state colleges and universities, and it came from none other than the accrediting agency itself.

“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,” wrote Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission, in a letter to the North Dakota Legislative Council.

Here’s a tip for supporters of the proposal, which would replace the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education with a three-person council: It would be in the supporters’ extremely good interest to get Manning’s questions answered before November, when North Dakotans will vote on the proposal.

That’s because if voters reject the proposal, it almost certainly will be in some large part because of accreditation concerns, which the North Dakota University System simply cannot afford.

For the loss of accreditation would be something like the detonation of an academic neutron bomb: It would leave the buildings standing, the professors teaching and the students learning, but it would incinerate the value of the institutions’ diplomas in a blinding flash.

Accreditation is the currency of the realm in higher education. Without it, federal aid can’t be secured, credits can’t be transferred, and degrees don’t get accepted in the professional or academic worlds.

It’s not something North Dakota wants to put at risk, in other words. Count on critics to point this out repeatedly between now and November, unless the state can secure from the commission a formal opinion on the effects of the proposed change.

Then there was the second event, which was less glaring but still useful in its illumination of the proposal.

“A motion that could have raised college tuition has been taken off the agenda for a State Board of Higher Education meeting after UND’s student government expressed outrage over not being consulted on the issue,” Forum News Service reported.

“Board spokeswoman Linda Donlin said in an email that student reaction at UND and North Dakota State University played a part in the removal of the motion.

“‘We certainly appreciate their concerns,’ she said.”

Now, here’s the thing: One reason why the board appreciates students’ concerns is that under the current governance structure, students have an actual seat on the board.

But if the eight-member board gets replaced by a three-member commission, then students will lose that seat and its vote.

Obviously, the current board doesn’t represent students’ concerns 100 percent. That was why UND’s student government complained.

But just as obviously, students want and will push the board to be responsive to their concerns. And for those students — a notable voting bloc in North Dakota — a new structure that replaces limited but very real representation with no representation at all seems likely to be a tough sell.