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The recent decision of the Board of Higher Education to increase duplication of academic offerings in the university system once again raises the question of whether a lay board as presently constituted effectively can manage the state's institutions of higher learning.

Almost every institution in the state is overextended, struggling to offer more programs and majors than the limited resources will permit, thereby jeopardizing quality in thinly funded areas while diverting funds from existing needs. These circumstances do not seem to dampen the relentless drive for expansion of the academic offerings.

In the most recent decision, the board approved virtually duplicate doctorates in communications and experimental psychology at the two larger universities. Offering quality doctorates requires a depth in faculty that neither institution may have on board at present or even can attract in the future, given state salary schedules.

Over the past few years, North Dakota has been experiencing an undercurrent of discontent with the management of the institutions of higher learning. Responding to this discontent, the state Legislature has been proposing constitutional amendments to bring the institutions into close harmony with the mind-set of the Legislature. Up to this point, the changes have been cosmetic.

In 1996, the voters approved shortening the terms of board members from seven to four years, thereby shortening the horizons of board members when long-term planning requires a futuristic view. In the same amendment, two political officeholders were added to the committee that submits nominees to the governor, with the expectation that the two new members would be able to nudge the nominating committee toward more responsive or more qualified candidates. The merit of this change is yet to be demonstrated.

In the recent election, the voters approved the appointment to the board of two, rather than just one, graduates from the same state institution. While this may increase the pool of qualified nominees, this will not have a significant impact on board policy.

When a board continues to make policy in the same way as it did 40 years ago, it is necessary to look beyond the structure and recognize the fact that the board is bound by more enduring forces than the transitory changes that are being made.

One factor is the conspiracy of silence on the part of all institutions when the board is making decisions on institutional programs. Even though the leaders of other institutions could find fatal flaws in the proposals of an institution, they remain silent because they know that their turn will come, and revenge would be around the corner. So, their strategy is best articulated by the rule that to get along, you go along.

Another factor is the transitory nature of the board. A constantly changing membership fails to produce a board qualified to defy the academic experts who constantly are proposing ventures for which there is limited justification. Unless those in management positions know as much or more than those under their jurisdiction, they are not managing. I learned that the hard way in the 1970s, as director of the department of accounts and purchases.

In our egalitarian mind-set, we never have permitted the chancellor of the University System to become a chancellor in authority as well as a chancellor in title. The institutions do not want a strong chancellor, the Legislature does not want a strong chancellor, and very probably the people do not want a strong chancellor. This means that to effectively conduct his office, the chancellor is required to compensate for his lack of direct authority with hours of negotiation and coordination.

The pervasiveness of egalitarianism in our culture also requires that all institutions be kept relatively equal. That explains why all institutions of higher learning became universities whether they really were universities. When every institution is a university, institutions are all more equal. It seems to be an operating principle of the board to preserve some sort of equality, whether it is justified or not.

Through the years, we really have not come up with structural reorganization to deal with the weaknesses of the board system. With each passing year, it becomes more apparent that there is no solution because the environment in which the board operates cannot be changed. As a consequence, we might as well adapt ourselves to the fact that there will continue to be few hard board decisions and more duplication in the future.

Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and professor of political science at UND.


Source: Grand Forks Herald,  June 26, 2000