Rod St. Aubyn: Tests Abound For The North Dakota University System

Higher education has once again found itself in the news with the possible lawsuit by a former NDUS attorney and the student discontent with UND’s President. As I read the stories it became apparent that these recent issues will be a test for many parties that will need to deal with these controversies.

Being a UND graduate and having previously worked at the institution for over 22 years, I found the story of the student dissatisfaction very interesting. Most of my University career there was under the leadership of Tom Clifford and for a while, Ken Baker. While every leader brings to the table certain strengths and also weaknesses, I find that the current situation very troubling. I have several friends and coworkers who still work at that institution and have visited with several others who have since retired. I have met President Kelley only once in the past, so I don’t have enough personal experience to form a valid personal opinion on his leadership skills. However, one thing that is apparent to me is that I am shocked that this situation has escalated to the point that it has.

Most of my experience was under President Tom Clifford. I know that under President Clifford he would have been aware of the undercurrent and would have had his administration (most likely Clifford himself) take the bull by the horns to investigate the situation and to find some type of resolution BEFORE it would have blown up like it has. I am not saying that the students are right in this situation – I just don’t know enough of the facts. However based on what I have read it is apparent that there are some real communication problems that exist between the administration and the student government.

In the case of the former NDUS attorney and compliance officer for the NDUS, the complainant makes some very serious allegations against the NDUS administration, the interim chancellor, and the President of NDSU. With the legislative session winding down and the search for a new chancellor under way, this probably could not have occurred at a worse time.

The circumstances that have occurred will pose serious tests on President Kelley, the NDUS Administration, and the State Board of Higher Education. With higher education having been under the public microscope as a result of past issues and numerous open records/meeting violations, the public has become very frustrated with how the NDUS and the Board has dealt with issues in the past. The legislators will be watching intently to determine how their newly confirmed State Board of Higher Education members react.

The current UND situation needs to be investigated by the interim Chancellor to determine a resolution. Based on the number of students attending the public meeting, it is apparent that there are some legitimate concerns that need to be resolved.

I think that an outside independent investigation is warranted for the allegations made by the former NDUS attorney/compliance officer. Since the allegations are being made about the current interim Chancellor and other senior staff including the President of NDSU and the lost emails, it is imperative that an independent entity lead the investigation. As her role as the NDUS compliance officer it makes no sense whatsoever to have that position report of NDUS staff. That role typically reports directly to the Board or a committee of the Board.

All investigations should be prompt and most importantly transparent. In the meantime, many entities will be tested:

  • Can President Kelley regain the trust of the students and find resolution with the current situation?
  • Can the interim Chancellor effectively lead the NDUS through these latest challenges?
  • Can the yet-to-be-determined Chancellor offer a pathway to regain the public’s and legislators’ trust in our University System?

Can the Board of Higher Education and its newly appointed members exhibit the leadership skills and wisdom to not only deal with these current issues, but also create a structure that will effectively chart a new course for higher education without micromanaging the University System?

Time will soon tell us who fails or passes these tests. The public has lost its patience and will be intently watching. Effective leadership is needed NOW!

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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