Higher ed needs flexibilty for accountability“Flexibility with accountability.” That’s the bargain the North Dakota Legislature struck with the state university system as a result of the Roundtable Report. The higher ed board and the universities gained more freedom to make their own decisions; and in return, they are to be held more accountable for results.
By: Grand Forks Herald, The Jamestown Sun
“Flexibility with accountability.” That’s the bargain the North Dakota Legislature struck with the state university system as a result of the Roundtable Report.
The higher ed board and the universities gained more freedom to make their own decisions; and in return, they are to be held more accountable for results.
Ten years later, how are things going on the accountability front?
Reasonably well. But some key changes would help, especially when it comes to rebuilding trust with legislators and the public.
The North Dakota University System annually assembles and makes available useful measures of the system’s performance. The 2009 Accountability Measures Report documents the percentage of graduates who are employed in North Dakota a year after graduation (60.1 percent), the grads’performance on licensure exams (higher than the national average on 19 of 25 exams), employer-related satisfaction with recent graduates (“very satisfied,” on average) and a whole lot more.
On balance, the system scores well on the vast majority of these measures. That’s why in many ways, “our higher education system is the envy of the nation,” wrote Richie Smith, former board president, just before his term of office expired. Smith’s right, and that’s a fact in which North Dakotans can take great pride.
That said, the system could use an in-house cynic — someone who could look at developments with a jaundiced but professional eye and could have the ear and respect of the chancellor and state board, thus overcoming the “groupthink” that’s so common in organizations of this type.
Of course, the system likely won’t be hiring a professional cynic anytime soon. So, the task falls to board members, who must scrutinize the system with all of their intelligence and every one of their critical faculties intact.
Two examples show the need for such scrutiny. First, such sharp-eyed and tough-minded leadership might have prevented some embarrassing episodes in the past year — episodes that shook to the foundations lawmakers and the public’s faith in the system’s oversight.
North Dakota State University’s president resigned over the episodes. University of North Dakota was left wounded. The state auditor formalized the findings when he wrote: “We determined capital projects within the university system are not adequately monitored. We conclude there is not a unified system of higher education related to capital projects” and “There is very limited to no effective monitoring of institutions’compliance with State Board of Higher Education policies.”
Of course, that’s old news. The second example is more recent: In December, news broke that NDSU’s budget would fall short because the school had authorized more tuition waivers than it could afford. Later, the Legislature’s Interim Higher Education Committee learned to its surprise that the waiver policies differ wildly between schools.
As a result, the higher ed board in June heard a report on tuition waivers. That might have been a good time to wrestle with the earlier events; for as those events showed, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
While waivers provide a benefit, they also impose a cost. (Otherwise, why not waive everyone’s tuition?)
So, what’s the upper limit on waivers? Should the policies be uniform statewide? How should schools guard against the trap NDSU fell into, in which the university used tuition waivers to help grow its student body, without securing the extra money for that enrollment from the state?
But judging by the report and the news coverage, few such questions were asked. Tuition waivers are all benefit and no cost, apparently: They “help campuses attract athletes” and the added enrollment helps “control cost increases for North Dakota students.”
Board members can accept such assertions. But they also must insist on getting the other half of the story: the half that involves costs.
“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That’s the journalists’ motto, always considered in newsrooms even if seldom followed in full. Board members should remember it, too.