A Victory For Legislative "Meddling" In North Dakota's University System


To hear some apologists for the North Dakota University System tell it, the problem we have in this state isn’t out-of-control higher education bureaucrats absorbing a windfall of taxpayer and tuition dollars and returning little increase in value for it while simultaneously greeting requests for transparency and accountability with disdain and dissembling.

The problem, we are told, is legislative meddling.

That was certainly the refrain earlier this year when lawmakers passed a university system budget that, among other reforms, moved the university’s systems auditors and lawyers to the State Auditor and Attorney General offices, respectively.

That move set off a five-hour hissy fit from university presidents at a State Board of Higher Education meeting, but already the benefits from the move are clear as evidenced by this article in the Fargo Forum from over the weekend.

Three years ago Lynn Dorn, then the women’s athletics director at North Dakota State University, was suspended without pay for some sort of inappropriate conduct with a student. The university has never come clean with the public on what, exactly, happened despite multiple open records requests from myself and others. Instead, NDSU lawyers claimed that federal student privacy laws prohibit the release of the information, which is laughable as North Dakota Newspaper Association lawyer Jack McDonald points out:

“In the university setting, literally every employee would have something to do with students at one time or another. Every dean, every president, every janitor,” McDonald said. “It’s a stretch to say, in most instances, that because you’re investigating a university official, it’s closed by FERPA.”

So how did the Legislature’s “meddling” reforms passed earlier this year impact the Dorn situation? Keep in mind that it was a self-serving interpretation of federal privacy laws by NDSU lawyers (attorney Christopher Wilson, as it happens, whose continued employment at NDSU is upsetting to many in the Legislature for good reason) which kept the Dorn situation under wraps.

But the university system’s lawyers now work for the Attorney General, and are much less likely to use contorted legal reasoning to keep the public in the dark.

So hooray for legislative meddling.