Best Friends Forever

A wise friend of mine, the late Rod Tjaden, used to say this about organizations governed by volunteer boards of directors: At any board meeting, there should be just two motions. The first motion is to fire the executive director. If the motion fails, the next motion is to adjourn.

Rod’s point was, of course, that if things are going just fine, as expressed by a vote of confidence in the staff, the board should just get the hell out of town and let the staff continue to run things.

Let us now consider the North Dakota University System, which is run, ostensibly, by a volunteer board of directors, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education. It’s a board of seven volunteer members appointed by the Governor, plus a couple of ex-officio members, a student and a faculty member. Right now, there are only five volunteer members. Two have quit, citing their frustrations with the amount of time their volunteer service requires. A third has served notice that he will not seek reappointment to a second four-year term when his volunteer service ends in June of this year.

Little wonder. The board is about as dysfunctional as a herd of cats, and is led by a failed administrator who would not have survived that vote of confidence if the board had taken Rod Tjaden’s advice. It’s scary to think about this group being responsible for the expenditure of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year. It’s scary, I guess, to think of any volunteer board being responsible for the expenditure of that much money. Especially one with second tier members and a weak leader.

You’ll get a pretty fierce debate among people who follow these kinds of things about whether the board is poorly led by current Chancellor Bill Goetz, or whether Goetz and his staff are poorly managed by this board. My sense is, it’s a little of both. No, it’s quite a lot of both.

We certainly have a very poor board right now, as poor as it has been in my lifetime. There are a couple of reasons for this, in my opinion.

I put the biggest blame on the fact that we have had a governor from the same political party for almost 20 years.

Huh?

Yep. Here’s why.

Even though there is a screening committee which provides the Governor a list of three names from which to choose new board members, it always works out that a Governor gets to choose a member of his or her own political party. Generally, that’s how government works. To the victor goes the spoils. And so, when a Republican Governor takes over from a Democrat Governor, over a period of time, membership of the board changes over from Democrats to Republicans. That’s generally a good thing. New blood, new perspectives, and a board should reflect the wishes of the person who won the election and is in charge now. Elections have consequences.

And so, Ed Schafer began appointing Republicans in 1993. I don’t remember all of them but some of his first appointments were long-time Republican activists like Beverly Clayburgh, wife of Republican National Committeeman Ben Clayburgh, former Republican Legislator Joe Peltier, and Minot banker Jack Hoeven. All Republicans, yes, but most would say all qualified to help direct our university system. Over the next few years, a succession of good Republicans followed. But eventually, the Republican Party began running out of good qualified candidates. After 15 years or so, the Republican Governors began appointing second tier members. Poorly qualified board members, but with good Republican credentials. That makes for bad management. That’s what we have today. And it’s not unique to Republicans. After 20 years of Bill Guy and Art Link, Democrats had the same problem in the 1970’s. Allen Olson was able to bring some new Republican blood to the board in his short term in the early 1980’s and Bud Sinner replaced all of those in his terms in the 1980’s and into the 1990’s. The turnover in the Governor’s office from one party to another was healthy for the Board of Higher Education.

But after 20 years of Republican rule in Bismarck, the board and the governance of the state’s university system has become one big cluster . . . well, you know.

This has been exacerbated by a second problem—a change in North Dakota’s constitution in 1996. When the board was created in the 1930’s, the constitution called for seven-year terms, with no possibility of reappointment. Members were appointed, served seven years, then left. In 1996, we changed the constitution to call for four-year terms with reappointment to a second four-year term possible—and almost, as it turns out, automatic. It sounded pretty innocuous at the time—going from a seven year term to an eight year term–so we voted for it. It gave the Governor quicker control of a majority of the board. Under this scenario, with two appointments a year, the Governor could get a majority of his own members on the board in just two years, and get rid of all of his predecessor’s members in four. It used to take seven years to get rid of all seven members. For example, even though George Sinner left office in 1992, his final appointment, a Dickinson Democrat, Paul Ebeltoft, served until the end of 1998. In fact, he served as president of the board in 1997, when there were actually five Republican appointees on the board. Those were less contentious times between the political parties, I guess. It wouldn’t happen today.

So now, 20 years after the Governor’s office changed parties, we have an ineffectual board, populated by political hacks like Claus Lembke, Grant Shaft and Duaine Espegard (the rest of the members might be hacks as well, I just don’t know them) who have appointed another political hack (albeit a wonderfully dedicated North Dakotan who was just never able to take command of the system in the wake of the Robert Potts fiasco—but that’s another story for another day) to be their chancellor, and the system is broken. Governance of the North Dakota university system is an embarrassment.

In the old days, the State Board used to invite the Governor and the Legislative leadership to meet with them on occasion and offer thoughts on the state’s higher education system and the board who runs it. Another old friend of mine, Senator David Nething, met with them a dozen or so years ago and offered these thoughts:

Leadership should be provided by the Board or the Legislature will assume that role. The Board should become a Board of definitive purpose and creativity, a Board deserving of trust from the public and legislators, a Board of courage, willing to analyze and challenge, and a Board deserving of the respect and admiration of the entire region we live in.

Well, Dave, how’s that working out?

Meanwhile, a new chancellor arrives any day now. Hamid Shirvani comes here from a couple of university posts in California, where he generated his own controversies. Most recently he received a vote of no confidence from the faculty at the University of California Stanislaus, where he served as the University president, news duly reported here at the time he was hired. He laid the no-confidence vote off on faculty disappointment over budget cuts in California’s financially stricken university system. What wasn’t reported here was the controversy surrounding a $75,000 speaking fee he paid to Sarah Palin for a fundraising appearance at his university in 2010, and the investigation by the California Attorney General into why he would not release the details of the speaking contract. Ultimately, after pressure from Legislators and the attorney general, the details were released, and the University made a bunch of money at the $500-a-plate fundraising dinner at which Palin spoke. (That’s Hamid with his arm around his new BFF Sarah at right.) But it was part of the uneasiness faculty felt, apparently, over Shirvani’s administration.

Shirvani was also embroiled in some controversy in a previous position, as Provost at Chapman University in southern California. Chapman’s student newspaper, The Panther, reported that “As provost, Shirvani regularly fought with the business school’s faculty about a range of issues, including parking, promotion, tenure and meetings, said Doug Tuggle, professor of business and dean of the Argryos School of Business and Economics from 2002 to 2005. Tuggle said he regularly found himself in the middle of fights between the faculty and Shirvani.  ‘I was pissed on from both sides,’ Tuggle said.”

Uffda. I hate it when that happens.

And so, Governor Dalrymple and his new State Board of Higher Education–by the end of the summer he will have appointed a majority of the members–and their new $350,000-a-year imported leader, go boldly now where no North Dakotans have gone before. It’s been a rocky first couple of years for the Governor. Let’s hope things get better. And let’s keep a close eye on his next two appointments. They’ll be happening soon.

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