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N.D. board works for taxpayers, not presidents

You’ve probably seen it happen if you’ve served on a board: Candidates campaign for board membership.

They win a seat. They attend their first meetings.

And pretty soon, the executive director — not the board — is running things. Again.

It happens with church boards and their pastors. It happens with school boards and their superintendents.

And in North Dakota, it has happened with the State Board of Higher Education and the presidents of key universities. The situation dates back at least as far as the presidency of Joe Chapman at North Dakota State University. And it continues today, as confirmed by consultant Tom Meredith, himself a former chancellor of two university systems.

“The board is running scared, nervous, playing it safe and voting close to the vest,” Meredith told the members at a board retreat.

Moreover, some presidents have taken advantage of that fact: “You’ve got one or two presidents or three that aren’t playing ball like you like them to play ball,” Meredith said.

“… (I)f you had people in your businesses doing some things like we see the presidents doing here would you put up with it? Not in a heart beat. The question is, why would you put up with it here?”

Put another way, the board has forgotten whom it is working for: not the presidents, but the taxpayers of North Dakota.

And remembering that core distinction is the key to the board reasserting its control.

Here are two places to start.

* Recommit to Pathways to Student Success — and don’t take “no” for an answer from the campuses.

Two stubborn statistics that drag down the North Dakota University System in rankings of all kinds are graduation and remedial-education rates. And by raising student admissions standards (among other changes), the Pathways plan by former Chancellor Ham Shirvani looked to move both of those numbers in the right direction.

Early on, the board unanimously endorsed Pathways. But Shirvani later left under a cloud; and since then, the proposal has been under assault from the campuses, as presidents fear the short-term enrollment drop that likely would accompany tightened admissions rules.

Enough. Pathways was and remains a good plan. It’s a practical and realistic proposal to improve outcomes and advance the university system.

It should be implemented without delay. And the presidents should be directed to make it work.

* Name the mystery president who is “not playing ball,” and resolve to more firmly exercise authority over that president and all other presidents in the system.

“You’ve got, from my observations … one president who’s striking out on his own, maybe one or two more,” said Meredith. “That will have to be dealt with at some point in time, and the sooner the better.”

Word-of-mouth and informed speculation tells us that the “one president” likely is Dean Bresciani at NDSU. In any event, the board should talk openly about Meredith’s observation, the factors that led up to it and how the board will respond.

One idea: The board wants to unify the 11 campuses’ email systems; but NDSU has balked, insisting that it needs a separate email system for now. Here’s a response the board could deliver that would not only serve the system’s (and thereby the state’s) purposes, but also reassure North Dakotans who want the board to take full command: No.

“It seems to me people are saying to you, ‘You’re not providing the leadership we need to have to run these universities,’” Meredith told the board.

“People want you to provide leadership that you’re supposed to provide. They’re looking for that.”

Meredith is exactly right. And the board shouldn’t delay in taking his advice.