North Dakota House Takes Lawyers, Auditors Away From The University System

Over the last several months the North Dakota University System has had a nasty situation involving one of their former top lawyers, compliance officer Kirsten Franzen, and their former top auditor, Timothy Carlson.

I say former for each because they were both fired. Carlson for allegedly lying on his resume to get hired, and Franzen for supposedly tipping me off about former State Board of Higher Education President Kirsten Diederich asking the public to leave a public meeting (Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem ultimately ruled it a violation of open meetings laws).

The message being that the university system cannot be trusted to hire and manage their own accountability personnel. The House wants outside management and oversight of those personnel. The legislation also requires that all current auditors/attorneys have to re-apply for their jobs. Which is a good thing, too. There are lawyers in the university system who are making more than the state Attorney General.

Franzen never spoke to me about that meeting, and she has declined to speak with me about her termination, but Carslon was happy to speak and told me his and Franzen’s termination had everything to do with them trying to do their jobs to make the university system transparent and accountable. And Carlson’s account has merit. Another former NDUS attorney wrote a memo accusing one university system official of trying to manipulate the hiring process around Carlson and making disparaging comments about his age (something a NDUS spokesperson has said won’t be investigated).

Like I said, it’s was a nasty situation, and indicative of the fact that the university system isn’t interested in letting their lawyers and auditors do their jobs to expose problems. They just want people who will play ball with the status quo.

So enter yesterday’s very long-winded debate over the university system budget. After about an hour of debate and floor fight maneuvering, the state House passed a university system budget that has only a modest increase in spending and also shifts funding for NDUS auditors/lawyers from the higher ed budget to the state auditor and attorney general budgets instead.

The message being that the university system cannot be trusted to hire and manage their own accountability personnel. The House wants outside management and oversight of those personnel. The legislation also requires that all current auditors/attorneys have to re-apply for their jobs. Which is a good thing, too. There are lawyers in the university system who are making more than the state Attorney General.

It’s time to clean house.

“These two pieces are absolutely critical to reform in higher ed,” Rep. Roscoe Streyle (R-Minot) said of the changes which passed by a wide margin (69-23). He’s right. This may be the most substantial higher education reform we’ve seen in some time, and it’s desperately needed.

“These two pieces are absolutely critical to reform in higher ed,” Rep. Roscoe Streyle (R-Minot) said of the changes which passed by a wide margin (69-23). He’s right. This may be the most substantial higher education reform we’ve seen in some time, and it’s desperately needed.

Something needs to break through the miasma of mediocrity, incompetence, and deceit which surrounds the university system.

The question is, how will these changes fare in the Senate?

You can expect the so-called “Bison Caucus” of NDSU loyalists to lean on Senate Appropriation Committee pretty hard, but there’s an appetite for reform even among lawmakers who traditionally seen as very loyal to higher education. Rep. Mark Sanford, a Grand Forks Republican, was very outspoken in favor of the reforms during yesterday’s floor debate and Senator Ray Holmberg, also of Grand Forks, is expected to be a champion for the changes in his chamber.

Apologists for the status quo in the university system like to applaud the independence of the system as enshrined in the state Constitution. That independence is supposed to isolate the universities from “politics,” but instead it has isolated them from prudent oversight and accountability.

It’s high time that began to change.

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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