The debate was interesting in that every single speaker who rose, even those who spoke in support of Melicher’s candidacy, expressed misgivings about his performance before the committee and concern over the way the university system is being governed.
It’s remarkable that a broad cross-section of our legislators, people from around the state representing a wide mix of ideologies, can agree that the university system is performing poorly.
Senator John Warner, a Democrat from Ryder and the Minority Caucus Leader, had the best description of the current plight of the SBHE, describing them as “a nest of baby birds being nourished by selected nuggets of information” provided by Chancellor Larry Skogen and the university presidents.
That is not a flattering comment, both in terms of the integrity of current board members or the honesty of Skogen and the university presidents.
Warner said he was voting for Melicher, but described a “near unanimous frustration with the board of higher education.”
Senator Don Schaible (R-Mott) carried the confirmation committee’s recommendation to the floor, and was not flattering in his comments about Melicher.”He had no knowledge of pending bills or the university system’s position on them,” he said during his speech. He added that Melicher seemed like a very nice person, with a lot of experience, and that under normal circumstances that would be enough. “These are not normal circumstances,” he added, referring to chronic problems in the university system.
Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider (D-Grand Forks) said he was voting for Melicher with “grave concerns” and said he hoped “the board will take this floor fight today as a soft lesson.”
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner (R-Dickinson) gave by far the longest speech, going for nearly 15 minutes. He fired back at criticism that the legislature was playing politics. “The issue was he didn’t answer the questions as completely as we needed to have them,” he said.
“This was not petty politics,” he added. “It was never about politics.”
Senator Tim Flakoll, a Republican from Fargo and employee of North Dakota State University, said he was concerned that if the Legislature is too aggressive with these confirmation proceedings that the state may not be able to find qualified candidates for the positions. “We’ve had a number of people who have resigned or chosen not to run again,” he said.
Be that as it may, don’t we at least want candidates who recognize the manifest problems in the university system? Senator Schaible said he was concerned when Melicher described recent problems with open records/meeting violations and fraud (to name a couple) as “a few hiccups.”
During the floor debate, Senator Dick Dever (R-Bismarck) said he wasn’t sure how to “send a message” to the university system about the legislature’s misgivings over their performance. Well, maybe it could start by refusing to give the university system what they want until some of these board members and university presidents begin to acknowledge problems.
That, at least, would be a start. Because what we’re getting now is a lot of sound and fury from lawmakers, without a lot of results. It’s one thing to tell off the university system in a floor speech, but will it change anything?