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Ellen Chaffee, Published August 20 2012

Leadership vital for ND higher ed

North Dakota’s good fortune positions us well financially, but it takes real leadership to capitalize on our full potential. Higher education merits special attention.

My views are based on more than 30 years in North Dakota higher education, five years at a national higher education think tank, and most recently four years of consulting with more than 40 university presidents and boards for their national association.

North Dakota can be very proud. We have one of the most efficient higher education systems in the country. We are pursuing significant goals based on consensus of all the leading stakeholders. We get high marks nationally on transferability of courses, use of technology and online learning.

But we are at a crossroads. Here as elsewhere, higher education faces major concerns such as student debt, student retention, rapidly changing workforce demands, new kinds of risk and high costs. Money alone can’t fix that – we need vision and bold plans.

The number of new higher education leaders this year is unprecedented. The chancellor and half of the board members took office just this year. Only one vice chancellor and two board members have served more than two years. Nearly all of the presidents, on the other hand, have been in the system for five or more years. If both new and long-term leaders commit to learning from each other, from best practices research and from other good advisers, higher education will benefit.

They may want to discuss how innovation can improve quality and decrease cost simultaneously. Nearly all states are doing this by necessity – North Dakota could lead in this vital area, too. Another priority is to ensure board members learn to fulfill their challenging roles and work together effectively. Good governance is crucial, and there are many wrong ways to do it.

North Dakota can enjoy economic strength and quality of life whether oil is at $100/barrel or $30. The key is education if we have a compelling shared vision for the future, talented leadership and smart decisions. I’m running for lieutenant governor with Ryan Taylor, and we have plans to ensure that North Dakotans get the very best education possible. Nothing is more important.


Chaffee is senior fellow, Association of Governing Board of Universities and Colleges, and candidate for North Dakota lieutenant governor.