Legislative staff: Fears of universities losing accreditation overblown

By Rob Port | Watchdog.org North Dakota Bureau

MAJOR CONCERNS: Kirsten Diederich, the president of North Dakota’s existing State Board of Higher Education, says she and her fellow board members have “major concerns” about a ballot measure that would replace them with a new full-time commission.

BISMARCK, N.D. — Concerns that a constitutional amendment could cost North Dakota colleges their accreditation may be overblown.

Research from legislative staffers show there is no evidence of schools losing accreditation after making changes to their governing structures, despite the fears of some lawmakers and government officials. North Dakota citizens will vote in November on a constitutional amendment that would change the governance structure of the North Dakota University System.

The proposed reforms include replacing the existing part-time, eight-member State Board of Higher Education with a full-time, three-member commission.

The measure was placed on the ballot by the Legislature, with supporters hoping a full-time board could better deal with the troubled system, but some have suggested the measure could cost the state’s universities their accreditation.

“We have major concerns about this,” Kirsten Diederich, president of the current board, said before a meeting with the Higher Learning Commissioner earlier this week.

The amendment could be “potentially devastating,” Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said during floor debate in the state House last year. “We may lose accreditation of all 11 institutions.”

In a letter sent to North Dakota Legislative Council in January, Higher Learning Commission President Sylvia Manning said the measure “raises questions about whether … the institutions would be in compliance with the Commission’s requirements on governance.”

However, the commission has refused to issue a definitive statement for the impact of the measure on accreditation.

But Legislative Council, responding to a research request from Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, has been unable to find any instances where a change in governance has cost an institution accreditation.

“Our office researched whether any state has lost higher education accreditation due to a change in governance structure,” Brady Larson of Legislative Council wrote to Flakoll in an email forwarded to Watchdog.org with Flakoll’s permission. “We were unable to find any instances of accreditation being lost due to governance structure changes.”

The Higher Learning Commission has been lenient when it comes to accreditation, at least in the instance of one North Dakota university. After an audit report found that Dickinson State University had issued hundreds of fraudulent diplomas to students, many of them in the United States on study visas, the commission ruled DSU could keep its accreditation.

You can reach Rob Port at rport@watchdog.org

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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