Higher Learning Commission Dismisses Complaints Of Legislative Meddling In University System


Back during the tenure of embattled former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani there were complaints filed with the North Dakota University System’s accreditor – the Higher Learning Commission – claiming that Shirvani’s leadership was violating accreditation policies.

Since then Shirvani was pushed out by the university presidents, rendering many of the complaints moot, but the HLC decided to visit the state and investigate anyway. Today their report on the visit was released.

You can read the entire report below.

What you’ll probably hear about this report from the rest of the media is that the HLC found that the State Board of Higher Education is improving their governance of the university system. The report does say that. But much more interesting is what the report has to say about the relationship between the Legislature and the university system.

Apologists for the university system have claimed that the Legislature is far too meddlesome. That they are violating the supposed “independence” of the university system, especially given that the Legislature put Measure 3 on the ballot which, if passed, would eliminate the existing governance structure and replace it with a full-time commission.

In fact, university system officials and their mouthpieces have claimed that Measure 3 puts the HLC’s accreditation of the universities in question.

Unfortunately, the HLC didn’t make a statement about Measure 3 one way or another in this report, but they did make some statements that undermine the critique of the Legislature’s actions that comes from the universities.

First, the HLC notes that university officials told them that they’re “offended” by the Legislature’s actions with regard to the university system:

There are problems between the SBHE and state Legislature that may relate to the Board’s lack of self-awareness and insularity. Some members of the Board were quite vocal in lamenting the erosion of autonomy and authority of the SBHE. It is a Constitutional office and, they believe, should be granted wide berth in deciding matters in its purview. The members expressed deep frustration—offense, really—with what they consider meddling by legislators into higher education. That meddling comes in the form of reduced funding, mandatory accountability measures, and now even a referendum to altogether eliminate the SBHE from the North Dakota Constitution.

But the HLC doesn’t seem to take these complaints seriously. While taking no position on Measure 3, the HLC notes that the Legislature’s actions are “not unreasonable” and suggests that perhaps the SBHE has a “lack of self-awareness and insularity”

The frustrations between the SBHE and legislators seem to connect to the Board’s insularity. It is not unreasonable that legislators would scrutinize how the Board operates and insist on changes. As a Constitutional office, the Legislature, too, has duties and responsibilities. This statement does not in any way offer an opinion on the merits or correctness of the referendum effort, only that there is evident frustration with the way the SBHE has operated.

Perhaps more interesting than these comments were the HLC’s descriptions of what are and are not examples of the Legislature exercising “undue influence” over the universities. Again, North Dakota University System officials have claimed that Measure 3 could cost the system its accreditation because it represents too much political influence over the universities.

Again, the HLC takes no position on this, in describing what is undue influence they seem to communicate that Measure 3 would not risk accreditation at all.

The HLC notes that “a distinction needs to be drawn between, on the one hand, the expected influence of legislatures on public higher education boards and their universities in the area of policy-making and, on the other hand, ‘undue influence’ that might prevail in other areas.”

More specifically, the HLC notes that just because university officials may not like a given policy passed by the Legislature, that doesn’t mean the Legislature is acting inappropriately.

It should not be surprising that legislators would have a perspective on whether the Board is exercising its authority effectively and ensuring that state funding is being used to maximum benefit. The perspectives of others, such as Board members or college presidents, might differ from those of the legislators. The legislators’ perspectives could easily lead to interventions that would not be preferred by the SBHE or by the campuses. However, it would be hard to characterize such differences in perspective and associated legislative policy initiatives as “undue influence.”

So, what would be undue influence? The HLC addresses that as well:

” Examples can be found in the areas of admissions decisions, employment, and curriculum. A legislator who calls a public university college president and insists that a certain student be admitted, with an implicit threat to the university’s funding should admission be denied, can be deemed as exercising undue influence. Similarly, a legislator who overrides institutional hiring and dismissal policies and insists that a certain staff member be hired or fired, or else, has stepped beyond his or her proper role as representative of constituents. Finally, a legislator who usurps faculty prerogative to determine curriculum would analogously be exercising undue influence.

So has the Legislature been guilty of meddling? The HLC says they couldn’t find any evidence of that:

In the present review, the visiting team found no evidence that the North Dakota Legislature has exercised undue influence on the SBHE.

Again, North Dakota University System officials tell us that Measure 3 represents too much meddling by the Legislature, and that it could cost North Dakota schools their accreditation. But the HLC says that the Legislature implementing policy changes with regard to higher education is not meddling.

What would be meddling is lawmakers using their authority to try and leverage favors out of university system officials, but that’s not happening.

This is pretty devastating for the university system’s case against Measure 3.

Update: Here’s video of the university system press conference where SBHE President Kirsten Diederich gave their spin on the report. You’ll note that neither Diederich or Skogen acknowledge the HLC calling the SBHE “insular” and lacking “self-awareness.”

Here’s the full report:

HLC North Dakota Report