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Published February 05 2013

Forum editorial: Higher ed invites a scolding

The president of the state Board of Higher Education has accused people who questioned the unannounced repurposing of a building on the University of North Dakota campus of being petty. But the pettiness thus far is in a condescending and angry letter of response Duaine Espegard sent to media outlets (on this page to the right). The missive reeks of arrogance. It’s tone-deaf in regard to nurturing relationships that are vital to higher education’s future.

The board apparently gave the OK for design changes to an IT building at UND without informing President Robert Kelley. That was mistake No. 1. A university president has the responsibility of knowing how and when and why buildings on his campus are utilized and modified.

Mistake No. 2 was failing to let key legislators know that a specific legislatively approved project had been modified, even if appropriated spending for the IT building was not changed.

The issue is not whether modification of the building to accommodate a regional office for the chancellor is a good idea. It is a good idea, as is a proposal to have similar space in western North Dakota, in Williston. The more time the chancellor can spend on campuses – east and west – the better for him and the system.

The problem is lack of common courtesy, made worse by dismissing legitimate concerns about accountability as petty. Espegard and Chancellor Hamid Shirvani surely are right when they insist the higher ed board manages the system and does not have to get the OK from lawmakers for every little project. But this was about notification, not approval. How difficult would it have been for higher ed officials to let lawmakers (and President Kelley) know what was going on? Espegard, a former legislator, should have been the first to make that move. Instead, he finds himself defending a blunder at a time when some legislators want to take the board to the woodshed on weightier matters, the most serious of which is Shirvani’s less-than-auspicious start as chancellor.

Again, office space for the chancellor at UND and in the west makes sense for the system. Even higher education’s implacable critics can agree to that. But the way the board and the chancellor reacted to concern about the UND building modifications has handed yet another club to lawmakers who believe their calling is to beat up on higher education. Nice going.

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