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Anna Burleson, Forum News Service, Published April 29 2014

Higher ed accreditation team visits with ND lawmakers

BISMARCK – North Dakota legislators expressed varied viewpoints on how well the state Board of Higher Education has been governing state institutions at a meeting with a national accreditation team Tuesday.

It was clear the most important thing to everyone was to make sure conflicts with governance don’t affect whether the 11 institutions the board oversees are accredited.

Chairman of the Higher Learning Commission’s advisory team, John Marr, who is also the dean of academic affairs at Ohio’s Cuyahoga Community College, assured the group that the system in place is working well.

“We are coming away with the sense that people just really want the best for higher education in North Dakota,” he said.

The HLC visit was prompted by former Valley City State University President Ellen Chaffee, who sent a letter to the agency last spring alleging the governance practices of the state board and former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani violated the HLC’s accreditation requirements.

In a meeting with campus officials and board members Monday, university presidents said concerns with governance had subsided since Shirvani left.

But on Tuesday, several members of the Legislature’s Higher Education Funding Committee described the state board’s actions as “frustrating.”

With a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall that would replace the current eight-member volunteer board with three paid full-time members, board President Kirsten Diederich said she feared a board appointed and paid by the Legislature would be biased.

The HLC requires an autonomous governing body for accreditation. Board member Duaine Espegard said during the board’s meeting Monday that the board doesn’t have the autonomy it should.

“Every time there’s a session, they put laws in to take away some of our autonomy,” he said of the Legislature, adding lawmakers hold the purse strings for the University System.

Autonomy also is taken away by institutional leaders who “do it the way they want to do it,” he said.

Espegard also said he has served on the board for seven years and there have been five different chancellors, “two of them run out” and the rest interim chancellors.

“And I believe it’s the governance,” he said. “If you don’t have the autonomy to do the job you’re required to do, you’ve got issues.”

HLC President Sylvia Manning will make a recommendation based on the findings of the visit that could range anywhere from continuing to monitor the situation to suspension of accreditation.