GRAND FORKS — North Dakota State Board of Higher Education members were split Thursday, Oct. 24, about how long initial presidential contracts should be.

Currently, the board offers three-year initial contracts to presidents. However, the board is now considering extending those contract lengths. The first reading of the policy change ultimately failed by a vote of 8-1 against. The change could still make its way back to the board following further discussion at a lower committee level.

Board member Dan Traynor was the only one to vote in favor of the policy change.

Traynor said the board needs to consider how long presidents are going to stay at their university and within the system.

“I think we should expect that whomever we hire for a first term as a president’s position, unless you’re an interim, stays at least five years,” he said. “It provides stability to the campus and some certainty, and if we're not going to have that expectation, I think that that's going to be a problem.”

Traynor said if a president isn’t living up to his or her job duties, the SBHE has the ability to terminate that contract. As the presidents are paid out on a yearly basis, it wouldn’t necessarily require the board to pay out the rest of the contract, depending on the reason for termination.

“The benefit of the five-year term is that it gives an expectation that we want that president to be around that campus for some extended period of time,” he said.

Nick Hacker, chairman of the SBHE, said there is a broader discussion to be had about presidential contracts. Whether a new president gets a three-year or a five-year contract doesn’t really define whether the right leader is in place at an institution, Hacker said.

Hacker, who has also been through a number of contract renewals, said the board isn’t always in favor of firing presidents.

“I've yet to see the political will of the State Board of Higher Education to remove somebody for cause,” he said. “So, without removing somebody for cause, if we don't have the political world to do that, then we're stuck for five years. And five years in my world is a long time.”

While board member Casey Ryan says he supports moving presidential contracts to five years, he questioned what would happen with presidents’ contracts already in place in the system and whether the board would have to add onto their contracts retroactively in order to make the system fair.

“I have difficulty approving something that's good for one and not good for the other,” he said.

Ryan, who is co-chairing the search for the next UND president, said a discussion about contract length did come up during one interview this week. The person had asked why the contract was so short, Ryan said.

Member Tim Mihalick, who is chairing the Bismarck State presidential search, said it would be a “negative” to move from a three-year contract to a five-year contract.

“I think five years is a long time in today's world,” he said. “I also don't want to handcuff us as a university system with the contract that's out there for five years. So I think there's a lot to be discussed and thought about before we move this forward to five years.”

Mihalick wanted to know what industry standard was for initial presidential contracts.

Chancellor Mark Hagerott said no president has pushed for a five-year contract before, as far as he is aware. However, he was cautious about extending the contracts to five years because North Dakota typically honors contract lengths in whole. He wonders what sort of message that could send to future applicants.

Member Kathleen Nesset said she is also opposed to the change.

“That is not the real world,” she said.

Debra Dragseth, the faculty representative on the board, and Retha Mattern, the staff representative, had hesitations about moving forward with a second reading of the policy change as the item wasn’t on the original agenda. Both said their respective councils would need more time to consider what an initial five-year contract would mean for campuses.

A motion to change the structure of the presidents’ contracts also failed. Board members had requested more time to consider the changes, which would greatly increase the length of presidential contracts.

Other items

SBHE also voted to allow UND authorization to make multiple building changes.

UND will now be able to demolish the now-vacant Montgomery Hall and remove additions to Carnegie, Gustafson and Babcock halls.

Those buildings will all be repurposed, with Carnegie being used as office and meeting space, Gustafson will have the ability to host events and one-bedroom apartments and Babcock Hall is poised to become the hub for “big data” at UND with the College of Engineering and Mines.

UND also received permission to sell the Conference Center building, located at 2724 University Ave. Kappa Delta sorority is leasing that building but plans to construct a new building and will no longer need the space.

Those items were approved unanimously in the board’s consent agenda.