FARGO — The task force studying ways to improve governance of the North Dakota University System is wrestling with the balance between frank discussion of executive performance and a public body's obligation to maintain transparency.
Two experts on governance addressed Gov. Doug Burgum's task force on higher education governance, which met Wednesday, Feb. 21, near the campus of North Dakota State University.
Patrick Traynor, president of Dakota Medical Foundation in Fargo, in a presentation about how nonprofit governing boards strive to improve their effectiveness, stressed the importance of direct and frank feedback in an organization.
That requires healthy constant communication, with the commitment that all discussions will be civil and kind, including criticisms, he said. It takes time to foster an institutional culture that allows for those constructive but frank exchanges.
Tim Flakoll, a task force member and a former state legislator, noted that the higher education board operates in the public spotlight, with close scrutiny of its actions, which he said can complicate frank discussion.
"How do we mesh that in a really open environment?" he asked.
The board chairman sets the "frames" for discussion, Traynor said, essentially performing the role of moderator to ensure that discussions are healthy. It requires training and a sustained effort to succeed, he said.
It's also important to assess executive and board performance, said Traynor, who called assessments a "laboratory for learning."
That prompted Don Morton, a task force member and chairman of the State Board of Higher Education, to say that open meetings laws sometimes can pose obstacles for the board, including discussions about leadership succession.
"We want to be transparent, we want to hold open meetings," he said, but the openness requirement at times can be a "hindrance." Although the board can go into closed session to evaluate university presidents, it cannot do so to evaluate the chancellor.
"Those are areas I think we need to tweak," Morton said.
Nonprofits operate under the framework that "everything is transparent," Traynor said.
Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, another task force member, asked Traynor for suggestions about how to change the mindset involving higher education, which is sometimes embroiled by controversy. "I think that could be a pretty high mountain to climb," Nathe said.
Leaders must deal with organizations as they exist, Traynor said. The governance goal should be to provide "pathways to grow potential." When recruiting board members, he seeks candidates who are "comfortable with a growth mindset" and are committed to dedicating themselves to the cause.
"I think we have to change the tenor of the conversation," Traynor said. "This can be fun." The goal, he added, should be for North Dakota to create the best higher education system in the world. Setting lofty goals and measuring progress are keys to performance.
Thomas Meredith, a former longtime higher education executive, said North Dakota is one of nine states with a single governing board for both two-year and four-year campuses. Another 14 states have two boards — one for two-year colleges, one for four-year universities.
North Dakota is not alone in examining the best governing structure for its higher education system at a time of budgetary strains, rising student debt and declining public confidence, he said.
"It's not uncommon," Meredith said, applauding North Dakota for the effort, since higher education is critical to a state's success. "A lot of this is going on in other states."
Meredith presented the task force with a slate of discussion questions, including identifying the state's 13,000 job openings, asking key stakeholders for suggestions to improve higher education, and what do the campuses think can be done better.
The task force, which has 14 members in addition to Burgum, first met last month. It is working to present recommendations on improving governance in higher education to the North Dakota Legislature in 2019.