This week news broke about North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani and State Board of Higher Education President Duiane Espegard attempting to order President Robert Kelley at the University of North Dakota to sign off on changes to a new IT building on that campus which would include a lavish new chancellor’s office.
The office – which at about 2,300 square feet would be about the size of the homes most of us live in – would see only temporary use during the chancellor’s visits to Grand Forks. And it wasn’t on any of the plans the legislature approved when they appropriated millions for the project. What’s more, during the 2011 session when the legislature was debating the appropriation, the university system argued that it was too small for their purposes. That argument rings hollow given how Chancellor Shirvani and Board of Higher Education want to use the office space now.
This was an abuse so egregious even legislators normally seen to be “in the tank” for higher education interests in the state were left wondering how it could possibly be defended.
But here’s an interesting thought: The biggest mistake the university system might have made was trying to push through the office while the legislature is in session.
Which illustrates the fundamental problem with the way we do higher education in North Dakota. The only real oversight our university system has is the legislature, and the legislature is full of part-time citizens who only really have the power to act during an 80-day session held once every two years.
To be sure, the legislature rarely does more than bluster about higher ed. They control the purse strings, but even as the university system has gone through scandal after scandal the legislature has been nothing but generous (to the point of being irresponsible with our tax dollars, I’d argue, but I digress). Even so, there is a level of scrutiny and accountability for higher education which only exists when the legislature is in session.
I’m not arguing, though, for expanding the legislature’s time in session. I’m arguing for the university system to be accountable to some elected official. The buck has got to stop somewhere, because what we’re doing now doesn’t work.
I know, I know. Putting the university system under the oversight of elected officials would be “politicizing higher education.” And, we’re told, this is a very bad thing. But politics is democracy. Taxpayer appropriations for the university system in the coming biennium will be nearly $1 billion if the legislature sticks to Governor Jack Dalrymple’s budget recommendations. Are the taxpayers really to be expected to hand over that kind of money to a bunch of not-elected bureaucrats and then keep their mouths shut?
That’s what we’ve been doing, and what we’ve gotten in return is wanton waste of our tax dollars, mediocre academic outcomes and downright fraud. And because of the university system’s “independence,” elected officials can shrug their shoulders. It’s all somebody else’s problem.
That has to change.