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Published May 25 2013

Forum editorial: Higher ed still mired in a mess

If “slow learner” were a requirement to serve on the North Dakota Board of Higher Education, several current board members would qualify. If that assessment sounds too harsh, a perusal of the board’s conduct the past six months suggests it might not be harsh enough.

Last week’s board meeting in Fargo did little to change perception. Board members remained enmeshed in a controversy of their own making over the management style of Chancellor Hamid Shirvani. Having been appropriately sanctioned by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem over open meetings violations, the board continued to pick and parse the circumstances and an email trail that led to exposure of the violations.

Further, the board agonized (agonizingly nit-picking) over an analysis of a report that alleged the chancellor had manipulated data to make graduation rates at the state’s two research universities look bad in relation to similar schools. In the end, the board voted 6-2 to reject the report in part, according to outgoing board president Duaine Espegard, because the credibility of the report was “not good.” That’s spin-meisterism for we better cover our butts on this one.

If that was not enough, Shirvani took up the cause by blaming the messenger for the message, claiming all of it was “theatrical nonsense.”

Let’s be clear: Not all board members are willing participants in the dysfunction. Kari Reichert and Sydney Hull have distinguished themselves, and incurred the wrath of other board members and the chancellor by being among the few who have raised legitimate concerns about Shirvani’s behavior and the board’s insistence on circling the wagons around him.

It’s a mess. Thursday’s session did little to begin a cleanup. It’s getting to the point where an argument can be made that the state’s excellent higher education system is being put at risk by the very people who are supposed to be its stewards.

They need to fix it soon, or the voters and/or the Legislature will.

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