Make No Mistake: North Dakota's University System Is Fundamentally Flawed

In an editorial about the outcome of Measure 3, a constitutional amendment to reform the way the state’s university system is governed which lost by a wide margin on election day, the Fargo Forum praises the wisdom of the voters.

Which is ironic given editorial writer Jack Zaleski’s angst-ridden rant about the outcome of Measure 5 where unwitting voters were taken in by a bunch of lying liars who lie. I guess the voters are only wise when the vote goes Zaleski’s way, but I digress.

“[V]oters were smart enough to understand that the stumblebum hiring and firing of Chancellor Hamid Shrivani was a really stupid personnel decision, not proof of a broken system,” the Forum editorial board opines. “Enough time had passed for the cloud of the Shirvani matter to dissipate. The often irrational storm of criticism blew itself out; and in the process, fixable management shortcomings and failures were exposed. No harm in that.”

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#666666″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]And into this accountability vacuum a toxic mix of rabid parochialism and sports fanaticism, with local media and football/hockey fans unwilling to countenance criticism of the hometown university, and you get a situation where university bureaucrats can get away with murder.[/mks_pullquote]

This might be a believable analysis if the folks at the Forum have ever been even once directly critical of someone in a management position within the university system. Instead, when things go wrong in the university system, the Forum usually directs its ire at what it describes as a meddlesome legislature or outside critics such as myself.

I sense that, for the folks at the Forum, the only problem with the university system is that some stubborn idiots keep talking about all the problems in the university system.

The idea that the problems with governance the university system are limited to personnel is patently ridiculous. Between the day when Chancellor Robert Potts was pushed out in 2006 to the day when Chancellor Hamid Shirvani was pushed out in 2013 every single member of the State Board of Higher Education had been turned over at least once. Yet the fundamental problem which led to both Potts’ and Shirvani’s departures was consistent: arrogant university presidents who think they’re ruling a fiefdom rather than administering a public university.

Heck, even some of the presidents changed. In 2006 it was NDSU President Joe Chapman who led the charge against Potts. In 2013 it was NDSU President Dean Bresciani who led the charge against Shirvani. This is true because the problem isn’t personnel. The problem is a public university system that is utterly divorced from any accountability to the public.

Apologists for the status quo tout this as much-needed “independence” from politics. In reality, it’s independence from sound governance.

The Governor of North Dakota appoints the members of the State Board of Higher Education, but they do not serve at his pleasure. He cannot remove them, no matter how poor their performance might be. As such, because the governor is not on the hook for the actions of his appointees, he sees little need to hold them accountable.

And into this accountability vacuum a toxic mix of rabid parochialism and sports fanaticism, with local media and football/hockey fans unwilling to countenance criticism of the hometown university, and you get a situation where university bureaucrats can get away with murder.

I don’t think Measure 3 would have done much to fix this. It was put on the ballot by a thoroughly frustrated legislature which was looking to sent a message, but then did very little to make an affirmative case for it. Which is why it ultimately failed.

The danger of Measure 3 failing was that the university bureaucrats would take it as an endorsement of the status quo from the voters. Indeed, I would expect during the legislative session next year that the university system’s lobbyists will make that exact case to any reform-minded lawmakers.

In trying to send a message, the Legislature may well have set back reforms. Expect the universities to continue to serve the state with skyrocketing costs for mediocre education at campuses where students take a back seat to athletics and crony capitalism.

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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