What Is the Point of the State Board of Higher Education?

There are two very ugly, very tumultuous situations in North Dakota’s university system right now. Situations in need of accountability. Transparency. Strong leadership.

Unfortunately, we’re not getting it from the State Board of Higher Education.

Case in point, University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy sent a letter to campus which said he’d be leaving for a new job in Colorado. Looking to protect the taxpayers of North Dakota, Chancellor Mark Hagerott moved to put Kennedy on the record as resigning. He has a contract which runs through June of 2020, after all. Kennedy has since said he hasn’t resigned.

It was a smart move from Hagerott. Kennedy bumbled his institution into a chaotic situation, and Hagerott was trying to be the adult in the room.

Only Don Morton, the president of the State Board of Higher Education, threw him under the bus. He claimed he wasn’t aware of the intent of the letter, despite what at least one other board member said, and went on to suggest the criticism of Kennedy was only from a “vocal minority.”

In a story posted to the Herald’s website early Tuesday, Morton was quoted as saying he feels Kennedy will be welcomed back to UND if he’s not offered the position in Colorado.

“I think there’s a very vocal minority — the negative people are always very vocal,” he said. “But I know there’s a very strong support group, too. And we’re just going to do what’s right. He’s got a contract. We’re going to honor that contract. We’re going to maintain our integrity.”

To be clear, if Kennedy doesn’t get the job in Colorado, I also think his contract at UND should be honored. It’s up in June of next year. Let it run out, and in the mean time start the search for Kennedy’s replacement.

But how can Morton dismiss the criticism of Kennedy as a “vocal minority?” Is he living in some alternate version of reality from the rest of us? UND’s top financial benefactors have vowed not to give any more money to the school while Kennedy is there – “We can’t hand money over if we don’t trust the governance of it” – and Kennedy himself basically called most of the state of North Dakota a bunch of racists and sexists because of widespread criticism of his decision to let his special assistant commute from Texas.

Meanwhile, at the North Dakota State College of Science, state auditors uncovered (among other troubling findings) a glaring conflict of interest in negotiations between the school and a PR firm which employs the wife of NDSCS Vice President (and Fargo city commissioner) Tony Grindberg. Auditors also thoroughly documented efforts by the administration at NDSCS to obscure Grindberg’s involvement in those negotiations.

How does the SBHE’s audit committee react to this? With milquetoast assurances that they’re taking the situation “very seriously.”

Which means they’re going to draw out the situation and rely on the public’s short attention span to turn a something into a nothing.

Chancellor Hagerott has said he doesn’t feel he can be candidly critical in public evaluations of the university presidents.

When Hagerott himself faced accusations of behaving inappropriately around NDUS staff – losing his temper and treating male staff differently than female staff – it was swept under the rug by the SBHE. Just months after those revelations were made to SBHE members, they gave Hagerott a glowing public evaluation.

Is it any wonder the North Dakota University System is plagued with problems? There is a leadership vacuum. Those charged with enforcing accountability in the system aren’t getting the job done.

Our Legislature has debated instituting a new, multi-board governing model for the university system. As I wrote before, I don’t think it’s the governing problem.

I think it’s the people and their priorities.

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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