Education discontent

Eddie Dunn, Fargo

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

These circumstances are not new. Similar discontent with higher education reached a boiling point during the 1999 legislative session. Fortunately, thoughtful leaders stepped forward to address the issues. As a result, 61 state leaders came together to develop a common vision and agreed-upon strategies and accountability measures that led to formation of a first-rate higher education system in North Dakota. These stakeholders included representatives of the private sector; the State Board of Higher Education; University System presidents, faculty and students; tribal colleges; and vocational and secondary education. The group became known as the Roundtable on Higher Education.

The results of the Roundtable now are evident on every campus and in numerous communities and businesses throughout the state. “Flexibility with accountability” empowered the campuses and established clear 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. The system is also credited with creating thousands of new jobs and contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the state’s economy each year.

By many measures, the Roundtable on Higher Education has been a huge success. It clearly demonstrated the power and potential of the state’s public colleges and universities to expand educational opportunities for students while also contributing to significant 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 on Higher Education.

Fast forward to 2013. The question now becomes whether or not the guiding principles of the Roundtable, including a shared vision, agreed-upon roles and responsibilities and mutual trust and respect, are still relevant. Senator David Nething, chair of the Roundtable on Higher Education, provided insightful 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 many thoughtful legislators and individuals throughout the state have understandable and 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 of higher education, we first should determine if we have a structural problem or a people problem.

Organizational leadership experts would contend that changes to the structure are necessary if it is determined the problems stem from structural flaws. If, however, problems result from “people” actions and decisions, then solutions aimed at addressing the 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 the rules and operating guidelines they have before them. People of high character can operate and be successful within any 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 trusting relationships are stronger success-drivers than a “gotcha” mentality and punishing “wrong doing.” An organization that abides by strong core values also results in a much more enjoyable, rewarding and productive work environment.

In this context, it’s important to examine whether higher education in our state currently 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 on Higher Education and interim chancellor, I have not found structure to be the problem. While no structure is perfect, what was put in place by legislation in 1990 to create a “unified system of higher education” has served students and our state very 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 during the 2013 Legislative Session would address perceived structural flaws. These bills will not solve the escalating challenges within the University System. Overhauling the current structure is not the answer; the answer is to re-establish the founding principles of the Roundtable on Higher Education and to have people in leadership positions who exhibit integrity in all circumstances.

(Dunn was interim chancellor of the North Dakota University system from 2006 – 2007)