Port: Forget a better governance model for higher education, maybe we just need better people

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Rob Port
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MINOT, N.D. -- A recent meeting of the State Board of Higher Education illustrated why we have such chronic problems with governing our state’s 11 public campuses.

The subject of University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy’s boneheaded personnel decisions came up.

One board member, Dan Traynor of Devils Lake, took Kennedy to task for giving his personal assistant a promotion and a $30,000 per year pay raise just before he arranged for her to have a $25,000 per year allowance to commute to work in Grand Forks from Texas.

This in addition to a personal friend of Kennedy’s getting over $17,000 per month to work part-time (no more than 80 hours per month) as the interim director of one of UND’s institutions.

Oh, and he got to commute too. From Boston. UND paid him nearly $30,000 in travel expenses.


While Traynor, appropriately, read an unapologetic Kennedy the riot act two other board members wondered if holding university presidents accountable was even something they should be doing.

“We are a governing board. We don’t have the expertise or the time to get involved in all the different campus issues, and every campus has them,” board chair Don Morton said .

“We hire and fire our campus presidents and our CEO, our chancellor, but this is business of their responsibility,” board member Kathy Neset said .

If holding university presidents accountable isn’t the board’s responsibility, whose is it?

Apparently not NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott. He submitted a glowing, entirely uncritical evaluation of Kennedy’s performance to the board but when questioned on why none of the obvious problems at UND were mentioned in the evaluation -- things like the struggle to find a new law school dean, low morale among faculty, etc. -- he literally said he didn’t feel he could be candid in those evaluations.

“During Tuesday’s SBHE meeting, board member Dan Traynor expressed concern that certain issues were not addressed in the review, including the search for the law school dean, issues with the UND aviation department and others,” reporter Sydney Mook wrote .

“I did not feel inclined that it would be helpful to be recording publicly candid comments about each of the situations in a written document,” Hagerott said in response to Traynor’s question.

In Hagerott’s defense, glowing and uncritical evaluations were the norm for his predecessors too.


Chancellors who are even mildly critical of the presidents tend not to keep their jobs very long.

For years now, amid scandal and controversy, we’ve had an endless debate over how to better govern the universities, and for good reason. Even despite recent budget cuts, in the current biennium our 11 public campuses are eating up roughly 15 percent of our state’s general fund appropriations.

Governor Doug Burgum has proposed a multi-board governance model. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner wants to expand the current board. A previous session of the Legislature passed a proposal turning the board into a three-person triumvirate.

At this point I’m not sure the model is the problem.

Maybe we just need people interested in doing their jobs.

Rob Port, founder of, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.

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