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Published May 09 2010

Forum editorial: No need to overreact to audit

The recent audit of building projects at North Dakota State University and other campuses highlights the need for better monitoring of costs and oversight procedures to prevent future abuses. The report, which detailed cost overruns and other problems, serves as a reminder that university presidents ultimately are responsible for ensuring that public dollars are well spent on their campuses.

However, as the chancellor and State Board of Higher Education set about designing and implementing those new procedures, they should be careful not to overreact or create a needless layer of bureaucracy. Specifically, we do not believe it would be wise to create a new high-level position to oversee university building projects, as Chancellor Bill Goetz has proposed. It’s important to remember that the report examined 14 projects at five campuses that had come into question.

The proper balance must be struck. We agree with Jon Backes, chairman of the board’s Budget, Audit and Finance Committee, who said: “The challenge from a fiscal management standpoint is how many people do you hire to look after the people that you hire to do the job that you’ve hired them to do?”

Instead of creating a new high-level position, we think it would be better to tighten procedures and oversight using existing positions, such as internal audit manager. That position, already charged with ensuring financial compliance, must have the authority and tools needed to effectively hold the financial line. Rather than report to campus superiors, perhaps it would be advisable for the internal audit manager to report to the chancellor’s office, or the board’s audit and finance committee, to ensure the independence the watchdog role requires.

It is essential to establish a system that ensures accountability to maintain the public’s trust. Encouragingly, the higher education system and campuses agreed with the state auditor’s reform recommendations. At NDSU, where most of the problems took place, real consequences were quickly imposed. President Joseph Chapman, whose tenure was chiefly one of remarkable achievements, announced his retirement when his spending on travel and the president’s house became an issue. His vice president of finance later resigned, as did the campus’s top building management official.

So a strong message of accountability already has been sent. The report should not become ammunition for critics, including some lawmakers, to get their hooks into the university system and deprive campus presidents of the flexibility they need to run North Dakota’s university system, which plays such a critical role in building a better future for the state. North Dakota’s system of higher education has long centered on strong presidents. Despite the flaws documented in the audit, that system has served NDSU, and North Dakota, very well over the years. It should not be stifled.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.