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Published May 30 2012

Forum editorial: Higher ed board in need of fix

The continued rash of departures from the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education is a troubling sign. Most recently Richie Smith, a former board president and vice president, resigned with a bit more than a year left in his second four-year term. He became the third member this year to resign or announce that he wouldn’t seek another term. Such an exodus is unprecedented in recent memory.

As we’ve observed before, meddling by legislative leaders is undoubtedly a source of wearying frustration for board members, whose constitutional mandate is to be advocates for and overseers of the state’s system of 11 higher education campuses. It’s also clear that the seemingly endless feud over the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname has taken its toll. Voters have it within their power to end that needless albatross in the June 12 primary.

But the frustrations facing the board run deeper and demand attention. Smith and the other two members who this year will leave the board – Claus Lembke resigned in April and Michael Haugen’s term expires this summer – cited the burdensome workload as a reason for leaving. Under Bill Goetz’s tenure as chancellor, the task of overseeing the university system simply has become too much for some members.

His successor, Hamid “Ham” Shirvani, who starts July 1, has an opportunity to reboot the way the chancellor deals with the board. First and foremost, the board’s function is that of a board of directors, setting major policies and making major decisions. Simply put, the chancellor’s office must be careful not to drown the members in minor details. It’s a matter of the chief executive striking the right balance between involving the members but not overwhelming them.

Fortunately, Shirvani seems to realize this. In an encouraging sign, he has said he wants to see the time commitment and stress of board members reduced when he takes over as chancellor. He envisions paring meetings, for example, from 20 items to focus on a handful of priorities.

Meanwhile, in filling vacancies on the board, Gov. Jack Dalrymple should look for appointees who are capable of helping to steer the right course for the higher education system – and are not shy about advocating for the needs of the students in the state’s universities and colleges, who in many ways represent North Dakota’s future. It’s a difficult job, as recent resignations have shown, but essential. With a new chancellor about to take over, and three new board members coming onboard, it presents a rare opportunity for the state’s university system.

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