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Lloyd Omdahl, Published June 28 2011

Omdahl: The onus is on leader and staff

If the North Dakota Board of Higher Education is as dysfunctional as some of its actions suggest, the chancellor and the professional staff must shoulder some of the responsibility. Dysfunction suggests that the chancellor has not used his staff strategically to provide the board with the kind of advice and assistance that is required by a lay board that meets once a month.

Lay board members are not expected to be experts and must rely on the expertise and counsel of the professional staff to lay out the options and vet solutions. Their job is to render judgment with their collective wisdom and not spend time digging through the chaff in search of the wheat.

We could speculate on the causes of the dysfunction. 1) The board may prefer wallowing in administrative details. 2) The chancellor may be failing to provide the board with vetted options upon which to act. 3) Higher education may be moving faster than the chancellor or the board. 4) Board members may be paying too much attention to the voices of decentralization. 5) The distinction between policy and administration may not be clear.

The departure of Bill Goetz as chancellor in 2012 will present an opportunity for the board to re-evaluate the kind of leadership it wants from the chancellor. Actually, the title “chancellor” is borrowed because the state Constitution doesn’t refer to the job as chancellor. The Constitution refers to a “commissioner” of higher education.

A few years ago, the board decided that the whole system of higher education needed stronger leadership to build a real university system, so it decided to empower a chancellor who would serve the board better than a mere commissioner. (After all, commissioners are a dime a dozen in state government.)

But it didn’t work. The change in title did not change the nature of the office or the authority of the commissioner. All of the political forces – college leaders, faculty, chambers of commerce, legislators, etc. – continued to assert their demands on the system. Detail continued to dominate board time. Institutions continued to pursue independence and autonomy.

The truth is that chancellors can’t operate like chancellors in the North Dakota culture in which everyone is equal to everyone else, including chancellors. So while they were given the title of an autocratic German monarch, the title has been benign. Chancellors have continued to be commissioners.

In the choosing of a new chancellor, everyone will want to have a say. To satisfy our egalitarian bent, we will give everyone a seat at the search committee, including board members, faculty, students, legislators, parents and more. It will not be so much of a search committee as an assembly of competing aspirations, and the board will be forced to use its own judgment.

The board’s choice will be an indication of its commitment to pursuing a coherent program for higher education with a strong chancellor who will stretch the board and the universities and colleges. We cannot discount the possibility that the board may not want a strong chancellor; it may not want to be stretched. Let’s hope that isn’t true.

The problems in higher education are outrunning us – skyrocketing tuition, quality faculty, dumbing down of standards, electronic instruction, rampant duplication, oversized physical plant and a large administrative superstructure throughout. All of these require a proactive chancellor with leadership qualities, able to equip the board, to guide the public dialogue, to negotiate the conflicts and to stay the course. We do need a chancellor.


Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com.