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Board vote of confidence in Potts may be limited

Members of North Dakota's Board of Higher Education voted this month to give unanimous support to Chancellor Robert Potts. Or did they? The answer depends on who you ask. To board member and recent board President Bruce Christianson, the vote at ...

Robert Potts

Members of North Dakota's Board of Higher Education voted this month to give unanimous support to Chancellor Robert Potts.

Or did they?

The answer depends on who you ask.

To board member and recent board President Bruce Christianson, the vote at the May 17 meeting in Bismarck was an all-encompassing vote of confidence for Potts.

But others say the motion board members approved was worded to be in support of Potts' work in three areas - recruiting people to fix ConnectND, his efforts in searching for a new Bismarck State College president and his response to budget deficits at Mayville State.


"I just wanted the chancellor to know publicly that at least for these three areas, I thought he was getting it done," said board member Richie Smith, who made the motion.

Regardless of how they interpreted the motion, most board members say they hope the vote will help them move past rumors that have swirled since The Forum reported a majority of board members wanted Potts fired.

"The board has a whole series of very important issues that are confronting us," said board Vice President John Q. Paulsen. "Concentrating on those issues is extremely important."

Sen. Joel Heitkamp,D-Hankinson, said he believes Potts would have been fired if not for the flap that arose over speculation on Potts' future.

That controversy began when Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, told The Forum he heard from two sources that a majority of board members wanted Potts fired.

"If what he (Holmberg) was saying is true, the coup got shut down," Heitkamp said. "A good and decent man's job was saved."

With the vote of confidence, Potts now has an equal or stronger position than he had before the controversy, said Heitkamp, who asked for an attorney general's investigation into whether board members broke open meeting laws.

"If you assume that certain campus presidents might be in an adversarial role to him, the board made it perfectly clear who's in charge," he said.


In response to the news stories about Potts, leaders at 10 of 11 North Dakota state campuses said board members need to focus on achieving more state funding and working for a unified university system.

Valley City State University President Ellen Chaffee, among the presidents who signed the letter, said speculation about Potts took away from the board's ability to focus on those priorities.

North Dakota State University President Joseph Chapman was the only president who didn't sign the letter. He has declined to talk about Potts, saying it's the board's job to evaluate the chancellor.

Holmberg has said some in the higher education community will claim forcing out Potts is a "quid pro quo" to keep Chapman at NDSU after he was named a finalist for the University of Wyoming presidency.

Chapman said recently the university system has placed more emphasis on uniformity, rather than a unified system. He said he supports a unified system, but the state's 11 campuses are different and need to be treated that way.

Smith said the motion he made was not in response to reports that some were dissatisfied with Potts.

He said he wanted to publicly acknowledge Potts, particularly for recruiting two qualified people to fix problems with ConnectND.

Board members said they don't recall another motion intended to thank the chancellor for his performance.


Board President Pam Kostelecky said while she supported the motion, she didn't think it was necessary because she's always had confidence in Potts.

Smith said it's important to recognize someone for doing a good job, and the board probably doesn't do it often enough.

"If he (Potts) gets$63 million out of the Legislature, I'll make the motion at every meeting for the next year," Smith said.

Paulsen, who seconded the motion, and board member Sue Andrews said they supported the vote of confidence specifically for the three issues Smith mentioned.

"I was glad to participate in that motion on those grounds," Paulsen said.

During discussion of the motion, Christianson said Potts deserved an all-inclusive vote of confidence.

While no one objected to his comments, the motion was not amended.

Kostelecky and board members Patricia Olson, Bev Clayburgh and Richard Kunkel said they would have supported an overall vote of confidence.


Other board members, when asked whether they would have supported such a vote, would not give a yes or no answer.

Smith said he hadn't thought about it.

Paulsen and Andrews said they supported the motion as worded and would not elaborate.

Council of College Faculties Vice President Tom Petros said he's pleased with the vote and hopes it will diminish any harm the controversy has caused the university system.

The faculty group issued a resolution at the board meeting showing support for Potts.

"It (the resolution) was a negative statement against all the back-door baloney and an attempt to urge the board to do business in the light of day rather than in this hypothetical smoke-filled back room," he said.

Petros, a University of North Dakota professor, said it's impossible to know if some board members changed their minds about Potts.

"Some who might have been contemplating getting rid of him probably very quickly saw the support there was for Potts," Petros said.


Heitkamp said for some board members, they made clear how they felt about Potts.

"For the other half, I believe it was a good old-fashioned butt covering," Heitkamp said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590

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