One of the reforms for higher education in North Dakota coming out of the 2015 legislative session was a shift of the North Dakota University System’s auditors and lawyers away from the university system’s budget and into the State Auditor’s and Attorney General’s budgets, respectively.
The need for this was obvious. The university system has had a major problem with law breaking (open records violations) and general accountability, and part of the problem is that the lawyers and auditors who are supposed to detect and prevent such things are in a bad situation.
It’s tough to be tasked with holding your own boss accountable, as the NDUS decision to can their top auditor and compliance officer before the legislative session proved.
So the university system’s lawyers and auditors now work for the State Auditor and Attorney General, and that has some implications for the people currently in those positions. “This meant that eight attorneys, two assistant and three auditors lost their jobs,” Mike Jacobs writes in his column today. “They can apply for jobs with the attorney general or the auditor, likely at lower pay.”
Many – including myself – see that as a feature of the legislation. There’s clearly systemic problems in the university system. The status quo stinks. An influx of new people may be conducive to change.
But at North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani seems to be trying to hold on to his personal consigliere, and by extension stick a thumb in the collective eye of the Legislature, and so he’s created a new Chief of Staff position.
Everyone I’ve spoken to in state government fully expects to be filled by current NDUS counsel and Bresciani henchman Christopher Wilson.
In fact, those rumors are so rampant that current Chancellor Larry Skogen (who is still on the job as new Chancellor Mark Haggerot hasn’t taken over yet) felt obliged to send this email to the State Board of Higher Education trying to spin the issue, claiming that this thumb-in-the-eye isn’t really a thumb-in-the-eye at all.
It’s interesting that NDSU is creating a new Chief of Staff position at a time when the university as a whole has been bellyaching about what they describe as budget cuts (in reality their budget increase wasn’t as large as they anticipated), and Skogen addresses that by claiming that Bresciani has cut two VP positions over the last couple of years. Which seems irrelevant. If the University System honestly believes that they don’t have enough resources right now despite whatever cuts Bresciani may or may not have made in the past, then how can Bresciani justify creating a new top-level position?
Skogen also says that it wasn’t the Legislature’s intent to see Mr. Wilson (who fought long and hard against legislation giving students due process rights earlier this year) terminated, specifically. While that’s technically true, I suppose, there’s no question that Wilson is the source of a great deal of animosity between lawmakers and the university system. It seemed pretty clear to me from discussions with lawmakers pushing this reform that getting rid of Wilson and others was absolutely the intent of the Legislature.
His work in avoiding open records requests from lawmakers and the public (I have a lot of personal experience with Wilson’s tactics) is, in particular, a point of friction.
At a time when the university system desperately needs to repair its relationship with state lawmakers can they really afford let Bresciani – himself the source of much of what is wrong with higher education in North Dakota – keep an irritant like Wilson on staff?
Skogen’s role as chancellor has always been to run interference for his fellow university presidents (Skogen will return to his position as President of Bismarck State College soon), but it’s clear that even he is having trouble smoothing over this latest middle finger to state lawmakers.