Dorso Column: Instead Of Adding New Staff, Restructure Higher Education

New Chancellor

I believe North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani is on to something.

Starting in the 90’s with a scam at Minot State University, then the famous University of North Dakota incident that cost President Kendall Baker his job, followed by the North Dakota State University fiasco that got President Chapman’s job and finally the Dickinson State University mess leaving President McCallum looking for a job they all have one thing in common. In all of the above situations, the problems couldn’t have happened without the complicity of the financial and accounting offices on the individual campuses.

When the first two happened I was Majority Leader and suggested what legislators were seeing was a systemic problem within the higher education system. I was roundly criticized by the Fargo Forum and others for attacking these sacred cows. I discuss some of the issues in chapter 3 and 14 of my book. I believe what I had done was recognize a problem that has continued to plague the University System for some time.

What Dr. Shirvani is doing by requesting additional accounting staff in the higher ed office is deal with the problem without offending the sensibilities of the college presidents and other supporters of the individual institutions. If I had been a little smarter, and not offended by the publicity surrounding my remarks, I would have suggested a solution much the same as Dr. Shirvani.

The problem is that the fiscal and accounting staffs at the separate institutions owe their jobs to the university presidents. I am convinced the chief financial officer at each institution has to be aware of shenanigans being perpetrated at the university. In none of the above mentioned cases, that I am aware of, did anyone on the financial staff lose their job. They of course were able to plead that they were only doing as directed by their boss. In my opinion there had to be complicity which led to the problem not being divulged until a whistle-blower or an audit by the State Auditor brought the situation to light.

I believe Majority Leader Carlson is also on the right track. I wouldn’t agree to give them more people in the higher ed office to correct the problem. As I said in the 90’s, it is a systemic problem. The CFO’s at the universities should not be answering to the university presidents. By increasing the staff in Bismarck which costs salaries and room to office them you have only said “we are watching you.”

A better solution would be to have the CFO’s answer to the State Board of Higher Education and Dr. Shirvani. The legislature at this point can take the Chancellor’s suggestion and go to the heart of the problem, but how far do they want to go? Do you make the CFO’s answerable to the Board or the Chancellor? Do you pay them out of the NDUS appropriation and charge it back to the individual institution or do you just cut the individual university’s salary line item putting those funds in the NDUS salaries? How many financial staff at each institution should come under this new system? I could see it all as being a negotiation that should end up with one result: The Board and the Chancellor would be assured that the individual CFO’s and some staff’s loyalty would be to them and the taxpayers.

The other benefit I can see is that the university presidents would have more time to concentrate their efforts on the missions of the institutions as put forward by the Board. I would hope they would find working in consultation with the CFO’s much less stressful than being responsible for the fiscal reporting of the financial affairs of their institution.

Some will argue that the legislature would be splitting loyalties. My answer would be there is only one loyalty the legislature is concerned about and that is to the taxpayers of North Dakota. This will be an interesting discussion when the Education section of the House Appropriation Committee takes up the matter.

My wife Sue and I wish everyone a Blessed Christmas.

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