By Chuck Haga and Teri Finneman, Forum Communications, Published April 21 2012
Departing members of higher ed board cite stress, criticismIt’s been a rocky road lately for the state Board of Higher Education, as two members say stress and a tough workload contributed to their decisions to step down, and the board president worries about the ability to find qualified candidates in the future.
Board member Claus Lembke of Bismarck resigned in the past week, saying his health suffered from the pressure of the job.
Board member Michael Haugen of Fargo said serving as the state’s adjutant general during Sept. 11 and making trips to the Middle East were easier than serving on the higher education board. He’s decided not to seek a second term after his expires July 1.
Their decisions are more evidence of the boiler-room pressure facing – or at least felt by – board members. A year ago, former board President Jon Backes cited the strain of board business and its effect on his Minot law practice to explain his decision not to seek another term.
He and Haugen also expressed frustration about the relationship between the board and legislators. The board was created to take politics out of higher education, but “these guys (legislators) just want to put it all back in,” Haugen said, while Backes said the stress of a heavy workload “was exacerbated by the failure of some members of the Legislature to respect the constitutional role and authority of the board.”
Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, said legislators aren’t playing politics.
“We have people expressing frustrations to us,” he said, “and when an entity such as higher education has a communications policy that is not probably conducive to trust … when you get the sense that you’re just not getting the whole story, it’s frustrating.”
Legislators and others have challenged the board’s handling of the Fighting Sioux nickname issue, projects involving presidents’ houses at UND and NDSU, and recently the awarding of dubious degrees at Dickinson State University.
Skarphol, chairman of the interim Higher Education Committee, said board members have to expect heat over issues because they’re the ones overseeing the University System. But he and Rep. Mark Dosch, R-Bismarck, said they’re sorry to see Lembke go.
“Claus was really committed to trying to do what he thought was the right thing,” Skarphol said.
Dosch said he knows members of the part-time board are trying hard, but when problems such as those at Dickinson State come up, the public gets upset and legislators need answers. “When there’s failure, obviously the public is looking at who’s responsible. As legislators, we’re getting the heat and saying, ‘What is going on?’ ”
Board President Grant Shaft of Grand Forks said the scrutiny, stress and workload all have increased, and that takes a toll on board members.
“Part of it is we are always in the public eye,” he said. “The running joke at my house has been that it’s a good day when dad isn’t in the paper or on TV.”
Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said criticism of the board “runs the gamut from fair to overblown.” Rep. Joe Heilman, R-Fargo, said scrutiny is part of the job.
“If they were more of an advisory board or a steering committee, then probably not,” Heilman said. “But when they are the entity in charge of approving and setting the policy, then they should get as much scrutiny as a legislator does.”
The state Constitution establishes the board as the policy-setting and advocacy body for the North Dakota University System and governing body for North Dakota’s 11 publicly supported colleges and universities. The board also oversees the NDSU Extension Service and Agricultural Research Stations, Northern Crops Institute, State Forest Service and the Upper Great Plans Transportation Institute.
Seven citizen members are appointed to four-year terms by the governor, who also appoints a student to a one-year term. System faculty and staff have non-voting advisers. Members receive $148 a day while on board business and also are compensated for travel expenses.
Lembke said his board work was “getting to be overwhelming, consuming most of my time.” Monthly agendas with supporting documents could be 300 to 600 pages long.
“When I went on the board, I thought it would be 10 or 12 meetings a year and some traveling,” he said. “But everywhere I went, it was talk about higher education. I was on the board and should accept that responsibility, and I did accept it. But it was taking away from my job” as a lobbyist for the state Realtors association.
Dealing with the Fighting Sioux nickname, which the board has sought to retire after failing to gain approval for its use by the two namesake tribes, has been especially frustrating, he said.
The public has become “far more aware of the board and what the board does,” Shaft said, “primarily because of the Fighting Sioux issue. That ends up being something we can’t shed, and people want to ask about it. I don’t have a lot of people stopping me in the street wanting to know about our budget proposals.”
Most people who come onto the board initially see themselves dealing with broader policy issues, Shaft said, such as admission standards, tuition, workforce needs and academic programs.
“In recent years, what has happened is the board becomes more and more involved in the day-to-day operation of the system itself,” he said.
That should change, he said, when the University System’s new chancellor, Hamid Shirvani, takes over July 1.
“It’s still going to be a very busy board, but a more CEO-type chancellor will alleviate a lot of the day-to-day minutia,” he said. “When we were going through the search process, that was one of the things we were looking at.”
Kirsten Diederich of Fargo said she doesn’t regret her decision to join the board. “I’ve found I have a passion for it,” she said. “For me, it’s been a fantastic move.”
Duaine Espegard of Grand Forks, the board’s vice president, also said he’s proud of what the board does but he’s concerned that the achievements often are overlooked. Shaft made the same point, saying that annual accountability reports paint a far more positive picture than the public gets from sporadic attention paid to controversial issues.
“When we go out of the state, people ask us, ‘How do you do it, and how do you do it so well?’ But in North Dakota, the general view is we have a system that’s out of control, not functioning as it should.”
Shaft said he fears it could be “increasingly difficult to get qualified board members” in the future because of the workload, controversies and stress.
“We all spend a considerable amount of time away from family and jobs,” he said. “I’m not whining or looking for a pat on the back. We all asked for the job. But we all get a little disillusioned” by what gets the public’s attention.
Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald. Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.