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Commission: Measure 3 poses 'significant risks' to NDUS accreditation

GRAND FORKS - North Dakota University System schools could risk losing accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission if ballot Measure 3 passes in November, a report from the commission indicates.

The proposed constitutional amendment, Measure 3, would replace the current eight-member State Board of Higher Education with a paid full-time commission consisting of three members appointed by several state officials and a “representative of an educational interest group,” according to the measure.

The HLC, an accreditation agency for postsecondary educational institutions in the north-central United States, issued a report Wednesday that focused on questions of implementation and autonomy, such as whom the three-person board would report to and what role a legislatively appointed advisory board would play.

“While the team has not identified any provision that, on its face, violates current HLC accreditation standards, it challenges the imagination to envision how the proposed commission structure will provide commission members the autonomy to lead NDUS institutions with the welfare of each institution’s students, faculty, staff, and the communities that each serve, as the foremost consideration in the judgments that they would be called upon to make,” the report said.

Problematic language

Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen said the report’s findings weren’t a surprise.

“Right now, if you go to our constitution and if you read the language of what the board is responsible for, it's pretty clear,” he said. “If you go into Measure 3, it’s not really clear what they’re responsible for or maybe more importantly, how it’s going to get done.”

But Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, a proponent of Measure 3, said it’s important to use vague language in constitutional drafting because organizations cease to exist and things like administrative and salary standards change.

“That type of detail is not something you would put in the constitution,” he said.

The HLC requires complete autonomy from state legislatures for accreditation, and board members discussed concerns that Measure 3 would not meet those standards at a meeting in April.

“This isn’t me talking, this is the Higher Learning Commission talking,” Skogen said. “Before, it was us as people in higher education understanding the challenges we were going to be faced with and some folks were just sort of pooh-poohing our concerns, and now the Higher Learning Commission has said that yes, there are significant challenges you’re going to face.”

The report also said an HLC visit to all 11 University System institutions would be necessary if the measure passes.

“While the team understands that a Concurrent Resolution being offered for voter approval is not intended to serve as a detailed operational plan, the lack of detail around these and many other potential questions regarding the functioning of the proposed commission, in the opinion of the team, poses significant risks to the functioning of North Dakota’s system of higher education as a whole and to future reaffirmation of accreditation for its individual institutions,” the report said.

A tight timeline

The report also points out that if the measure passes, the implementation legislation would have to be put in place quickly so the State Board of Higher Education could submit a mandatory report to the HLC by Feb. 15, 2015.

In a letter to Skogen, HLC President Barbara Gellman-Danley said Measure 3’s proposed implementation date of July 1, 2015, “provides little time to develop the details of an effective new governance process.”

“We’ve got an obligation to our 11 institutions that if it passes, that we get all of this mechanism in place as quickly as possible. So what the Higher Learning Commission is telling us is that there are tremendous challenges,” Skogen said.

This comes after the HLC visited with higher education officials and legislators in April after former Valley City State University President Ellen Chaffee alleged the governance practices of the state board and former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani violated the HLC’s accreditation requirements.

The HLC issued a subsequent report that gave a positive review of the board’s past actions with some criticisms, including a lack of self-evaluation or clear performance goals. A consultant also criticized the board last month for creating mistrust with the public and university presidents.

Moving forward, Skogen said the board will hold more training and be assessed this fall.

“This is something that has to be more systematized,” he said. “It’s got to be more routine that the board looks at itself and looks at its institutions and sees progress, or not, and then makes adjustments accordingly.”