Fargo Forum reporter Kyle Potter has an excellent run-down of the “civil war” over higher education in North Dakota. If the story has gotten a little too far down-in-the-weeds for you, that’s a good place to catch up.
The latest revelation in the imbroglio – which isn’t much of a revelation as it was pretty much an open secret – is that state Rep. Bob Skarphol is behind some of the Legislative Council requests for emails. The revelation of Skarphol as the source for some of those requests comes as apologists for the university system go on the offensive.
Their other talking point? The email requests from Legislative Council are oh-so-expensive. According to a NDUS estimate, the requests for emails from Legislative Council will cost around $40,000, or about what it costs for NDSU President Dean Besciani to fly around in the university’s private airplane for a month or so.
Of course, running up the cost on open records requests is a tried-and-true tactic deployed by the universities. I won an open records complaint against North Dakota State University after they tried to charge me $2,000 for some of President Dean Bresciani’s emails. I ultimately got them at no-charge.
But rather than fighting over emails, maybe we should talk about why this fight is happening?
Former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani was the target of a political campaign to push him out because, his critics claim, he was an ineffective and intemperate manager who created friction with his subordinates. Some, including myself, might argue that the friction in question stemmed less from Shirvani’s allegedly abrasive personality than his desire for much-needed reforms opposed by the status quo in the university system, but whatever. Shirvani got his golden parachute, and that’s so much water under the bridge.
The thing is, as my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Gordon was fond of telling me when I got into playground fights, “these things don’t happen in a vacuum.” Which is to say, there are two sides to every story. It takes two to tango.
If Shirvani is guilty of trying to govern a university system with an iron fist, then multiple leaders in that university system are guilty of making it ungovernable.
Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen’s claims that everything is “fantastic” in the university system. This is not a serious statement. Honest observers, up to and including the State Board of Higher Education which continues to at least pay lip service to Shirvani’s proposed reforms, recognize the need for change.
But certain university presidents – among them UND’s Robert Kelly, NDSU’s Dean Besciani, Minot State’s David Fuller and Skogen himself (who also serves as the President of Bismarck State) – have made it clear that they are hostile to that reform. So virulently clear, in fact, that it cost Shirvani his job.
If these men can’t play nice, then they need to go along with Shirvani.
Next year voters will get a chance to vote on a measure referred to the ballot by the legislature eliminating the State Board of Higher Education and replacing it with a new governing structure. This would be a good change, but no governing structure is going to work if the heads of the universities refuse to be governed.
Fuller is already stepping down, and that’s good news, but others should follow him if there is to be any hope ending the in-fighting in the university, not to mention the less-than-stellar fiscal and academic performance of those institutions.