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Eddie Dunn, Published April 06 2013

Letter: Are higher ed challenges in its structure or is it a people problem?

It is difficult for many people familiar with higher education to understand how the North Dakota University System could fall from a national model of the 2000s to a source of frustration and dissatisfaction in 2013.

These circumstances are not new. Similar discontent reached a boiling point in the 1999 legislative session. Thoughtful leaders stepped forward; 61 of them came together to develop a vision and strategies and accountability measures that led to formation of a first-rate system. The group became known as the Roundtable on Higher Education.

The results of the roundtable are evident on every campus, and in communities and businesses throughout the state. “Flexibility with accountability” empowered campuses and established expectations of each institution. Invigorating the university system with an entrepreneurial spirit led to dramatic increases in accessibility, affordability and seamless transfer among institutions as well as rapid growth in public/private sector partnerships. Today, the NDUS leads the nation in the percentage of students (74 percent) who start at a two-year college and graduate from a two-year or four-year institution.

By many measures, the roundtable has been a success. It demonstrated the power and potential of public colleges and universities to expand educational opportunities for students while also contributing to growth in the state’s economy. These achievements were recognized with numerous honors, including the 2002 Innovations Award from the Council of State Governments. Legislators and higher education leaders who attended national conferences frequently were asked to provide presentations about the success of the roundtable.

Fast forward to 2013: The question is whether guiding principles of the roundtable are still relevant. Sen. David Nething, R-Jamestown, chairman of the Roundtable on Higher Education, provided words of caution in his closing comments to the roundtable members when the Roundtable Report was being adopted. He said, “The plan is fragile because much of it is built on trust.”

It is important to acknowledge that thoughtful legislators and individuals have legitimate concerns about higher education. The dilemma lies in how to address these concerns. Before legislative action – or state Board of Higher Education action – significantly alters our statewide system, we first should determine if we have a structural problem or a people problem.

Organizational leadership experts would contend that changes to structure are necessary if it is determined problems stem from structural flaws. If, however, problems result from “people” actions and decisions, then solutions aimed at addressing people issues are in order.

Misdiagnosing the situation, followed by applying the wrong solution, will compound the problem. In other words, if the problems are of a people nature, changing the structure won’t correct the problem. If, however, the right people are in place – people who have the core values of integrity, honesty and trust – then structure doesn’t matter.

It is a truism that people of good character find ways to be successful and do so within rules and operating guidelines. People of high character can be successful within a reasonable structure.

An organization that creates an environment of strong core values – along with the understanding that deviation from those values will not be tolerated – usually finds it unnecessary to employ extensive oversight and auditing measures. Such organizations have learned that honesty and trust are stronger success-drivers than a “gotcha” mentality and punishing “wrongdoing.”

In this context, it’s important to examine whether higher education has structural problems or people problems. From my observations as a faculty member, administrator, vice chancellor of strategic planning, executive director of the two-year colleges, staff liaison to the roundtable and interim chancellor, I have not found structure to be the problem. While no structure is perfect, what was put in place in 1999 to create a “unified system of higher education” has served students and our state well. It would be tragic to destroy this structure and later realize that people problems were the root of the dissatisfaction.

The stakes are high. Four bills introduced at the Legislature address perceived structural flaws. These bills will not solve challenges in the system. Overhauling the structure is not the answer; the answer is to re-establish the founding principles of the roundtable and to have people of integrity in leadership positions.

Dunn was interim NDUS chancellor 2006-07; vice chancellor for strategic planning 1993-2006; senior vice president, Greater North Dakota Association 1993-2006; NDSU faculty 1967-73.