SBHE President Decries “Misinformation” About IT Building Scandal In Email To Legislators

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A legislative source passes along this op/ed emailed out to members of the ND House this afternoon from State Board of Higher Eduation President Duaine Espegard. “Please find my response to the misinformation regarding the IT building in Grand Forks,” Espegard wrote in the email to legislators. “I wanted you have copy as I am sending this op ed to all media this afternoon.”

You can read his full op/ed below, and keep in mind as you read it that this issue was initiated not by critics outside the university system but rather UND President Robert Kelley who didn’t go along with orders from Espegard and Shirvani to approve changes to the IT building’s plans.

I’m not sure that Espegard is going to win many friends in the legislature by belittling their concerns over this building project as “petty,” or calling the facts “misinformation.” Nor is his assertion that the legislature doesn’t have the legal authority to question these changes going to be looked upon with favor. The university system long ago lost the sort of political capital it takes to simply stonewall issues like this. A couple of years ago they might have been able to bully the legislature on an issue like this.

But times have changed.

In my original post breaking this story on Friday I posted two copies of blueprints for the buildings provided to me by legislators. Espegard complains that it’s unfair to call this new office the “Chancellor’s Suite,” yet that’s exactly how the new area is referenced on the blueprints.

Also, Espegard makes it sound as though this new suite doesn’t displace any IT workers, but legislative sources tell me the university system claimed in 2011 that this building was too small for their IT needs. That doesn’t exactly jibe with what Espegard is saying now.

Espegard, the State Board of Higher Education and the university system in general have lost a lot of credibility in later years. This letter attempting to poo-poo this problem isn’t likely to change that.

In fact, the tone and arrogance of this letter is just throwing fuel on a fire. As someone who thinks the university system is in desperate need of reform, I’m happy to see Espegard making the case for it so thoroughly with his words and actions.

SBHE responds: Misinformation on IT building petty attempt to return to old days

Duaine Espegard, President of the State Board of Higher Education

On January 14, the State Board of Higher Education and the North Dakota University System presented our “Action Agenda for a Bright Future” to the Senate Appropriations Committee. I stood before the assembly and declared the dawn of a new day for higher education in North Dakota. And I meant it. I speak for the entire Board when I say, higher education is on a new path, and we are determined to be successful. Our students, our citizens and our state deserve it.

However, last week, we saw a petty attempt to return to the old days when misleading information was given to the media that claimed the Board needed to check with the Legislature about design changes to an NDUS IT building on the UND campus, which was approved last session. I’m writing to set the record straight.

First of all, the latest plan, which simply carves out an administrative office area in one section, creates no change in the functionality or purpose of the building. Despite the information given to the media, no IT staff has been displaced. There is space for 142 team members in the building, and we currently have 119 IT staff working in Grand Forks. By the way, this staff reports to the NDUS Chief Information Officer, who reports to the Chancellor. Thanks to the state’s investment, our IT system is first-rate and it serves all of our campuses effectively on a daily basis. This building will help them do that more efficiently.

Second, this design change has no impact to the size or cost of the building. Section 48-01.2-25 of the North Dakota Century Code, dealing with authorization of expansion of public improvements, states the Legislature should be notified if there is a significant change in the size or cost of the building – which there is not. Such a change was made in the design last year, and it was taken to the budget section of Legislative management in March 2012, as required by law.

Third, this NDUS administrative area is not strictly for the Chancellor’s use. Yes, the Chancellor may use the office when he is in town. However, it will also be used by NDUS staff when they are in the area, by Fargo IT staff who frequently travel to Grand Forks, by institutional personnel when visiting the facility, for meetings with vendors and likely by community members.

Fourth, to call this the “Chancellor’s Suite” is unfortunate and misleading. Yes, it has office space, a conference room, work spaces for other personnel, and other facilities.

What is important to know is that access to most of the building will require an IT security clearance, so it was necessary for this area to have facilities outside the secure area. An area with conference room and visitor spaces was under consideration long before a touchdown space for the Chancellor’s use was mentioned.

Fifth, information that was supplied to the media compared old drafts of plans to today’s plans, insinuating that this is the only change that has been made. The old drafts were concepts, not blueprints, and there have been many changes since planning began last February – moving walls, relocating work areas, moving fixed office spaces, redesigning work spaces, moving restrooms – as the most efficient use of the space was determined.

Finally, the Board has instructed the Chancellor Shirvani to spend as much time as possible on our campuses. Not only will he have a touchdown space in Grand Forks as he works in the eastern side of the state, he will also have one in Williston as he serves our western campuses. We believe it’s important for him to be visible and accessible as we work to deliver higher-quality education and build an efficient system to serve our students and our state. If some feel threatened by that, so be it. The Board believes this is critical, and I speak for the entire membership when I say we won’t be distracted by pettiness. The Board is committed to a brighter future, and we believe the Governor and the Legislature support that vision. We aren’t going to let misinformation slow us down.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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