New Faces And New Ideas Aren’t Enough For What Ails North Dakota’s University System
After a rough year during which the North Dakota University System was plagued with scandal, it’s amazing to watch as those running that system attempt to re-invent themselves. At Dickinson State University – where somehow nobody is being brought up on criminal charges despite hundreds of instances of fake students, fake diplomas and misused funds are beyond dispute – old leadership (with the exception of former President Richard McCallum) has been allowed to leave quietly while new leadership took over.
At the state level, former Chancellor Bill Goetz who was caught working behind the scenes to cover up the DSU fiasco, has been replaced by a more politically-savvy import from the California University System who is proposing a raft of policy changes for the university system that, admittedly, sound very appealing.
Soon after Hamid Shirvani’s hiring as chancellor the higher ed officials in the state were talking about his being their new CEO. Their meaning was clear. Shirvani is to act as the buffer between university system officials – such as the always abrasive President Dean Bresciani from NDSU and former State Board of Higher Education president Grant Shaft – and the state’s elected officials as well as the public which elects them.
Even the State Board of Higher Education itself has received a makeover after a significant number of board member quit over the last year, several of them before their current terms were up.
In short, there are new faces and new ideas in the university system, and that’s not such a bad thing. Already the state’s higher ed apologists (who can now bring themselves to admit that there are, in fact, problems in the university system) are gushing about the new leadership. Witness the Sunday edition of the Grand Forks Herald which had not one but two columns from editor Tom Dennis and publisher Mike Jacobs giving Shirvani and the new higher ed leadership high praise before they really accomplish anything.
The trajectory higher education was on before these changes was one in which the independence of the university system was likely to have been ended. A growing number of legislators have had enough of the antics of the university system, and were (and still are, as far as I know) ready to lead the charge for major reforms. Consider the new leadership, and the new ideas, the university system’s bid to stave off those reforms. Indeed, both Dennis and Jacobs already dismiss them as unnecessary.
But is this enough? I don’t think so. In fact, I think this may be akin to putting a new coat of paint on a home with a crumbling foundation. Many of the problems with higher education in North Dakota did have to do with leadership. Under people like Goetz, Shaft and others our university system has been managed poorly, with an emphasis on larger campuses and bigger enrollment numbers rather than academic outcomes. Yet, so much of what allowed the university’s past problems to develop is the fact that the university itself is not really accountable to the public at all.
The university system may be putting their best foot forward now, knowing that a reckoning may well be coming in the next session, but if we dismiss external reforms because we judge internal reforms to be sufficient, who is to say we won’t find ourselves in the same position ten years hence?
Keep in mind that for all the change in tone coming out of the university system, they’re still asking for yet another 14% increase in their biennium budget despite higher ed spending having grown more than 4x faster than enrollment since 2001.
It is not a good idea to have such a large branch of our state government – one that costs us $1.2 billion/biennium – under the control of people who aren’t ultimately accountable to the electorate.
The ideas for the university system Shirvani is proposing – including the end of tuition waivers – are good ones. But they’re not enough. The problems with the state university system are systemic. They stem from a lack of accountability to the public.
If we want lasting reform in the university system, we need to change the way the university system is governed. The universities need to be put under the control of either the governor, or a higher education official who is elected on the statewide ballot. Anything short of this will only ensure that the state’s on-going higher ed soap opera continues.Tags: dean bresciani, higher education, North Dakota News