Audio: Higher Ed Board Members Talk About Lack Of Trust In University Presidents

On July 31st I filed an open meetings complaint with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office. I was guest hosting a radio show for WDAY that morning, but a SAB reader had tipped me off that the State Board of Higher Education had requested that the public leave an open meeting at their retreat on the University of Mary campus. The reader didn’t think the meeting was closed properly, and neither did I, so I filed the complaint (you can read the initiating documents for the AG’s investigation into the meeting here).

I’m probably going to win that complaint, because today via a source in the Legislature I received an audio copy of the closed meeting that was obtained by Legislative Council.

The first thing to note about the audio is that you can hear SBHE President Kirsten Diederich ask everyone but the board members, their legal counsel and a consultant to leave the room. She acknowledges that it’s an open meeting, and that attendees don’t have to leave, but she says she would appreciate the public clearing the room.

I don’t think it’s legal for a public official to make that sort of a request at an open meeting, but we’ll see what the AG’s office has to say about it.

The other thing to note is that the board members had, in the absence of the public, an extremely blunt and candid conversation about the problems plaguing the university system including at least one out-of-control president. They also talk about an utter lack of trust between the board members and the campuses.

If you are someone who is concerned about higher education policy, I would urge you to take the time to listen to the approximately 45 minutes of audio above. It is hard to hear at times (I’d use headphones) but what you’ll hear is shocking and eye-opening.

Here are some excerpts:

SECRECY

In addition to clearing the public out of the room, it was made clear during the meeting that these comments weren’t to be made public.

“It’s got to be like Vegas in here,” consultant Tom Meredith (see his bio here) told the board members, no doubt referencing the famous tag line “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

You’ll find out why the board members didn’t want this public in a moment, though I’ll point out that the public should hear this. It’s about time we got some honest words about the very real problems with our universities.

PRESIDENTS ARE THE PROBLEM

“From my observation you’ve got…one president in particular who is striking out on his own,” Meredith told the board members. “You’ve got another one or two, but one in particular that seems to be on everyone’s mind. That’ll have to be dealt with at some point in time.

Meredith didn’t make it clear which president he was speaking about, but I’m guessing it was NDSU President Dean Bresciani he was referring to.

It’s worth noting that NDSU President Dean Bresciani has been fighting the State Board of Higher Education over the unification of the systems administrative emails on the basis that he doesn’t trust system employees to respect his privacy. NDUS Vice Chancellor Lisa Feldner has said that lack of trust runs both ways,” in response to Bresciani’s objections.

Also, in an evaluation earlier this year, Chancellor Larry Skogen warned Bresciani that he has been given a lot of “latitude” under the current university governing structure and that a lack of support for the university system might result in a change (voters will cast their ballots on a measure to replace the board of higher education in November).

“In any organization if you’ve got someone who is not in,” Meredith told the board during the closed meeting, “the organization can never move forward.”

Meredith also noted some pettiness going on between the university presidents and the board. “I was distressed to learn last night that the board was not invited to be a part of the commencement at NDSU,” he said. “That’s off the charts.”

LEADERSHIP NEEDED, LACK OF TRUST IN CHANCELLOR

“We are the board, why do we allow that?” asked a female board member (I believe it was Kathleen Neset) referring to certain university presidents defying the board.

She also expressed some concern about Skogen. “We have a chancellor who was a president. We’re all in a dicey situation here because he has split allegiance.”

“The board is running scared,” Meredith said in response. “It seems to me that people are saying to you, ‘you’re not providing the leadership the universities must have.'”

Meredith agreed with the female board member (I’m assuming was Neset) as to why the board is letting the Presidents walk all over them. “If you had people in your businesses doing some things like we see the presidents doing here would you put up with it?” he asked. “Not in a heart beat. The question is why would you put up with it here?”

Meredith re-iterated that some of the presidents are simply defying the board. “You’ve got one or two presidents or three that aren’t’ playing ball like you like them  to play ball,” he said. But he Meredith also says he believes not all of the presidents are united in their defiance.

“You’ve got some others who I would bet don’t like this other stuff going on. That it’s not good. It’s not making things run smoothly,” he said. “It’s certainly not helping collaboration to help things going forward.” He pointed out that the turmoil caused by some of the presidents is probably bad for some of the smaller schools.

BOARD CAN’T TRUST “BUNK” INFORMATION THE CAMPUSES GIVE THEM

Meredith talked to board members about working with the professionals in the university system to solve policy problems, but board member Grant Shaft pointed out that the board has a hard time trusting much of that staff.

“When you say we need to work with our experts on the campuses and things like that, I agree with that, but I’m not so sure this board is able to completely trust the information that comes up from the campuses,” Shaft said.

He cites an example from a previous meeting: “We had a presentation at our last meeting on admission standards. I’m no expert, but what that task force brought forward in my view was bunk,
he said. “And so I don’t know if I have a level of trust. I don’t know if as a board member I can sit back and say ‘ok you campuses get together on important policy issues and tell us what you think,’ because I think some of that information comes from people who aren’t really with our agenda.”

“We’ve got to do something to make sure you get consistent, good data to help the board make decisions,” Meredith said in response.

‘SHORT OF A CRIME NOBODY GETS HELD ACCOUNTABLE HERE’

“This board has never known how to hold anybody accountable,” Shaft said after the conversation about the lack of trust in information coming from the campuses. “This board has got to get prepared that if you say ‘the University of North Dakota is going to increase their graduation rate by 5 percent’…and if [UND President] Bob Kelly does not do it and there’s not a good explanation you need to be prepared to hold him accountable.”

Shaft expressed a high level of frustration with serving on the board due to the lack of cooperation from the universities.

“What you get almost makes you want to lose your will to live on this board,” Shaft said. “You come in [and are told by the universities] what you set was unreasonable. Here’s a stack of documents this high. Actually graduation rates don’t really mean much [laughter]. And here we are again.”

“Short of a crime, nobody gets held accountable here.”

SHIRVANI DID ONE THING RIGHT

Former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani was run out of North Dakota after a push-back campaign from the university presidents, but during this discussion one of the board members said she liked how Shirvani held the presidents accountable.

“That’s one of the things I liked about what Ham was doing,” board member Kari Reichert said after Shaft’s comments about a lack of accountability. “He said ‘hey you’re going to sit down and help me come up with these goals. These aren’t my goals these are your goals you told me you could achieve and if you don’t this is what the evaluation is.'”

One of Shirvani’s last acts as Chancellor was to issue scathing evaluations for some of the university presidents, though those evaluations were rescinded and replaced by uncritical evaluations from Chancellor Skogen.

‘YOU’VE GOT TO STEP UP’

One major area of criticism from observers of the university system like myself is the poor graduation and retention rates at the university system. University officials poo-poo this criticism, but it turns out Meredith seems them as a problem as well.

“Your retention rates and graduation rates are just abysmal,” he told board members. “They just are.”

“Thank you for saying that,” Shaft responded, before being shushed by the board’s legal counsel for getting too close to talking about board business.

“You’ve got to step up. The public is crying for you to step up,” Meredith said.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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