The Independence Of North Dakota’s University System Must Be Ended


This week news broke about North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani and State Board of Higher Education President Duiane Espegard attempting to order President Robert Kelley at the University of North Dakota to sign off on changes to a new IT building on that campus which would include a lavish new chancellor’s office.

The office – which at about 2,300 square feet would be about the size of the homes most of us live in – would see only temporary use during the chancellor’s visits to Grand Forks. And it wasn’t on any of the plans the legislature approved when they appropriated millions for the project. What’s more, during the 2011 session when the legislature was debating the appropriation, the university system argued that it was too small for their purposes. That argument rings hollow given how Chancellor Shirvani and Board of Higher Education want to use the office space now.

This was an abuse so egregious even legislators normally seen to be “in the tank” for higher education interests in the state were left wondering how it could possibly be defended.

But here’s an interesting thought: The biggest mistake the university system might have made was trying to push through the office while the legislature is in session.

Which illustrates the fundamental problem with the way we do higher education in North Dakota. The only real oversight our university system has is the legislature, and the legislature is full of part-time citizens who only really have the power to act during an 80-day session held once every two years.

To be sure, the legislature rarely does more than bluster about higher ed. They control the purse strings, but even as the university system has gone through scandal after scandal the legislature has been nothing but generous (to the point of being irresponsible with our tax dollars, I’d argue, but I digress). Even so, there is a level of scrutiny and accountability for higher education which only exists when the legislature is in session.

I’m not arguing, though, for expanding the legislature’s time in session. I’m arguing for the university system to be accountable to some elected official. The buck has got to stop somewhere, because what we’re doing now doesn’t work.

I know, I know. Putting the university system under the oversight of elected officials would be “politicizing higher education.” And, we’re told, this is a very bad thing. But politics is democracy. Taxpayer appropriations for the university system in the coming biennium will be nearly $1 billion if the legislature sticks to Governor Jack Dalrymple’s budget recommendations. Are the taxpayers really to be expected to hand over that kind of money to a bunch of not-elected bureaucrats and then keep their mouths shut?

That’s what we’ve been doing, and what we’ve gotten in return is wanton waste of our tax dollars, mediocre academic outcomes and downright fraud. And because of the university system’s “independence,” elected officials can shrug their shoulders. It’s all somebody else’s problem.

That has to change.

Rob Port is the editor of 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.

Related posts

  • Tim Heise

    Well lets change it. Petition anyone?

  • ec99

    Revamping higher ed would require the sort of changes status quo-obsessed North Dakotans could never take. It would start with the realization that the system is not about ed; students serve to pump in revenue, not learn. When some 25% of freshmen don’t return to UND and over 50% take 6 years to graduate, you can see the system is broken. When the bureaucracy is bloated with administrators on 6-figure salaries, while more and more courses are taught by grad students, adjuncts, and temproray faculty, some of whom cannot speak comprehensible English, you know the system is broken. When a part of tuition is detoured to athletics and a football and hockey coach make 6-7 times what a professor makes, you know the system is broken. When money is spent on multi-million presidents’ houses, parking ramps, and alumni buildings, while UND and NDSU cry poverty…yes, the system is broken.

    • Kevin Flanagan

      Big education is viewed as a profit center for educarats, tenured pointy heads, pointy heads with tenure envy and their lazy enablers in the legislature and executive branch.

      • reggy

        Maybe you should run for office and fix it. But you won’t, cause apparently you’re the lazy one

        • Kevin Flanagan

          I couldn’t afford the pay cut; how long have you been latched onto the state government teat, “reggy?”

  • Alan

    So, if the System is blown-up how is it repaired and made better? Do we allow all institutions to be independent, each with their own rules, regulations, transfer requirements? Do they each compete independently for favor from the Governor and the legislature for budgets, projects?

    Has anyone seen this “lavish” office being discussed? Is it sheetrock walls, wood panelling, inlaid bookshelves, or has it not even been constructed? Are the 24 cubicles that are so-called eliminated been eliminated or have they been relocated to another part of the facility? Is the space from other parts of the faculty now accounted for in the space being discussed and was it conference, and closed office space before being designated for use by the Chancellor.

    What independence is to be taken away? Who then gets the power to decide? The answer to who gets the power very well may answer why such articles are written.

  • cylde

    He who pays the piper calls the tune, if the educrats do not like that then they can try running a private school with funding provided by operations and customers. They can have a 747 to fly around in and Taj Mahal office buildings on their own dime.

  • whowon

    Hopefully Margaret Sitte and other logical Senators will read this.

  • awfulorv

    If you, as a professor, were relegated to what is considered an academic wasteland, notwithstanding the reasons they accepted their present positions, that being their inability to be accepted onto the faculties of more prestigious universities, you’d want to be highly compensated for your cultural sacrifices too. One can only imagine the snide remarks they, and their wives, must endure when encountering academics from those, more dignified, schools at myriad wine tasting events throughout the year. The airplane they flew in on, though a jet would be more impressive, and pictures of their half acre offices, do wonders for their esteem during these, otherwise, trying drinking bouts. And since they read, each day, of the state’s overflowing oil tax bonanza, they wonder why all the fuss being made over what they perceive as meager rewards for bestowing their exalted presences on the faculties of the state. And, as it ever was, the animosity engendered by the exorbitant salaries, in their estimation, paid the, non academic, coaching staffs is like a stye in their eye, and more reason, if needed, to raid the state’s piggy bank at every opportunity.

    • What?

      “[W]hat you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have
      ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you
      even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought.
      Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award
      you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

      • Roy_Bean

        I’ll try to translate. These various academic giants feel that they have sacrificed their careers to come to this god-forsaken wilderness to think deep thoughts for the benefit of the hicks who live here. We, the ungrateful, expect them to actually drive to meetings and crowd into little offices and selfishly refuse to share the wealth of our neighbors in the oil patch who have altogether too much money.

        • dumb luck

          I love how completely stupid and out of touch so many of those in North Dakota higher education (professors, administrators and all those assistant to the duputies to the assistant to the presidents) are – generically speaking of course. Granted there are some here because they genuinly appreciate the nice North Dakota lifestyle and do a decent job but unfortunately most (professors and administrators) are here because they either: can’t cut it in more distinguished academic institutions or plan to use their time in the North Dakota University System to pad their resume to one day reach an institution of greater prominence in another state.
          As a result we are stuck with some really stupid people making really stupid decisions with our taxdollars and the stupid politicians support the stupidity in North Dakota higher education despite the tremendous illogic in doing so.

          • Zach

            Quite a broad brush of conjecture you paint with.

      • awfulorv

        Well, therein lies your problem, dense one, you were supposed to read, not listen, to my missive. And I doubt that your God, busy as he is recording fallen birds, and such, gives two hoots and a holler of what I’ve written. I am happy to note that you are now allowed to entertain yourself on the keyboard, though they probably are unaware the little red light light is on. Hospital staffs, especially the Jamestown crew, are notoriously lax on weekends…

        • What?

          Do you think about what you write before you write it, or do you just wing it? I’m guessing the latter.

          Notice what I’m doing here? It’s called “a new paragraph”. It helps make your written thoughts more comprehensive and readable.

          Also (new paragraph!), it would help for readers to understand if you used coherent sentences that flow together and not a hodge-podge of metaphors and homilies.

          • awfulorv

            The best advice I can give you is: Do not wet your bed…
            Do not set fires…
            Do not be cruel to small animals…
            Lest the authorities peg you as a potential, serial killing, editor…

  • awfulorv

    Politics will be exorcised from the educational curriculum on that day when educators, of their own volition, opt, in fairness, to teach from the right side of their textbooks, as well as the left, or the twelfth of never, whichever comes first.

  • sbark

    At least, couldnt student athlets use the office space, when not in use, to flip thru phone books and fill out petitions?……..

  • Stuart

    You mentioned Professors teaching that can not speak English. We have a diversity problem and its not that we are not diverse enough, it’s that those the take these jobs in Higher Ed refuse to assimilate . I mean years and years after being in the states and you still can’t speak proper English. And we think we can have an environment that is healthy and conducive to educate our students?
    First we have a moral problem destroying marriage which an creates irresponsible home life, which dumbs down much of our high school graduates. Then we have Professors who are secular humanists that undermine any sense of morality . We have Football players that commit fraud or other crimes and get nothing for their irresponsible behavior. Where in the LIGHT ON THE HILL attitude in society that Tradition use to teach us?
    Schools Administrators are well schooled in playing the Legislature for all they can and get by with it! Play politics and ask for three times more than you need, then get double what you need and carry out this scheme through eternity. It’s all a sham. And we use to be proud of these Halls Of Ivy!

    And where are the Bison Boosters? Right in the middle playing politics with the pool.

    • awfulorv

      As an aside, and off the wall note, Major league baseball will, next season, allow interpreters to come to the mound to facilitate instructions from the manager to the pitcher. Now if you, or I, dear friend, were raking in a million dollar salary we’d probably hustle up that Rosetta advertisement we’d seen on TV and, instead of rap music blasting through our earphones, we’d be listening to the dulcet tones of a young lady teaching us English, as she, and the bullpen catcher, warmed us up. On second thought, I’d learn English if they paid me only $750.000.

  • Rick Olson

    North Dakota’s higher education system does need a top to the bottom overhaul. First of all, it needs to be stripped of its constitutional protection as being the fourth branch of government enshrined in the constitution; and therefore, largely untouchable. Since most legislators don’t have the cajones to sponsor, let alone pass, such sweeping changes; it will be up to the people of this state to rise up and use the initiative process to first, put forth a proposal for a constitutional amendment to strip higher education of its cherished and well-defended constitutional protection. Then follow that up with initiated legislation to make the higher education system directly accountable to the executive branch. It seems to me that the chancellor of higher education needs to be a guberantorial appointee who serves at the governor’s pleasure as all department heads the governor appoints.

  • ND Observer

    I am not convinced we have a structural problem with higher ed so that requires a change in governance and structure. We have more of a leadership problem at the board, chancellor and campus leadership levels. We either have weak leadership or arrogant leadership, but not servant leadership. We have gone from a weak chancellor (Goetz) to an arrogant chancellor (Shirvani) which means we need to cut our losses soon and try another one.

  • Larry Gauper

    Rob..we don’t often agree but we are definitely on common ground on this one. This smacks of nothing but bureaucracy building. The “chancellor” wants this space for “his staff.” Staff? We need more STAFF??? Praise the Lord, we need LESS administrative staff and more teaching. This guy’s trying to build an empire.

  • Captjohn

    Back in the 90’s Majority Leader Nelson, Governor Schafer and myself put a measure on the ballot to remove the protection of the State’s constitution from the institutions.
    It was soundly defeated because the Fargo Forum and most of the towns where there was a facility of higher ed went on a editorial rampage about the dire consequences if it were to pass. Eleven institutions of higher learning banned together to defeat the measure. The Board of Higher Education refused to take a stand. Their silence was deafening. The three of us and the legislature that passed the measure had the guts but found little public support. We could see coming what you have suffered through for the last decade.
    Why would you expect your elected officials to fight a fight the citizenery hasn’t supported? You had your chance at the ballot box a decade a go and you blew it.
    If I was leader again, I wouldn’t put my neck out. It’s time you as citizens get the petition going if you want change.
    In the meantime I think legislative leaders should put together a permanent committee of the legislative council whose only reponsibility is to over see higher ed. With a few more staff up at the legislative council and some help from the state auditor you might finally get compliance with state law and legislative intent from the higher ed folks. As it is now Rob is right, the fourth arm of goverment thinks it is above it all.

  • the hammer

    This monarchy of a legislature is trying to restrict and cripple our right of Initiative and referral. Their goal is to make the process so restrictive that we can’t use it anymore. HCR 3005, HCR 3011, SCR 4006, and SB 2184 if passed will do just that. The purpose is to eliminate accountability and to distance themselves from the people they are suppose to represent. Contact your legislators and tell them to oppose these and other bills concerning I & R.

  • Clarence A. Herz

    Amen brother

  • fred

    It’s no coincidence that the Forum ran a front page story about a faculty “purge” at NDSU in the 30s by the governor at that time (Langer I think”) and they trumpeted the formation of the Higher Ed Board as a way to free academia from the tyranny of the legislature and the Governor’s Office. The only problem with this view is that Shirvani and Espegard ARE SPENDING MY MONEY and it’s not going to educate one student. Abolish the Higher Ed Board and use the money save to reduce undergraduate tuition.

  • ndoldman

    What is interesting is the irony of an entity like higher ed expecting to be independent but dependant on the the tax payer . F-em they shouldn’t be able to have it both ways if they want independant than wean them off the public teet or submit to the taxpayer and legislators to become more responcible to to the students they serve and not the admin. just cuting the bloat of the look the other way of the chancellor and H.E. board would be a good start.

  • VocalYokel

    Sucking the financial marrow from the bones of the Taxpayer seems more like dependence than “independence” to me.
    The SBHE gives parasites a bad name.