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More reform proposed for higher ed

North Dakota voters will once again be deciding whether or not the Board of Higher Education should be revamped to solve unidentified problems seen by the Legislature.

For the 2014 election ballot, the Legislature proposed the outright abolition of the Board with replacement by three full-time commissioners. The idea was soundly trashed by the voters.

Double Board Size

In the upcoming November election, the Legislature is asking us to approve increasing the size of the board from seven to 14 plus a student representative.

Within this 6-year period, many of the legislators who voted for the 3-commissioner system were on hand to vote for increasing the Board to 14. This raises the question of whether or not the Legislatures knows what it is looking for and the nature of the perceived problem may be.

In studies comparing the effectiveness of the unicameral legislature in Georgia with bicameral bodies in 1830, the researchers considered the stability of legislature (frequency of later amendments) as a measure of performance.

In the case of the North Dakota Legislature not knowing its mind on Board sizes, it appears that we have a stability problem that would question the competence of the Legislature.

No Management Advice

It is doubtful that the measure sponsors spent anytime checking with management people to get advice on the impact of size on board conduct. None of the four management sources checked by this column recommended a 14-member board.

After reviewing three board sizes (Less than eight; greater than 10; 8-10) Governance Today said that for “organizations that employ a CEO/Manager eight is the preferred number.”

A study by Bain Capital Private Equity claimed that the optimal number to make a decision is seven and every additional board member decreases decision-making by 10 percent.

Small Boards Collaborative

In 2014, governance researchers from GMI Ratings studied boards for the Wall Street Journal and concluded that smaller boards were more collaborative, effective and efficient.

Nicholas Price, summarizing the GMI research for Diligent Insights, pointed out the advantages of a small board:

1. Board members arrive better prepared.

2. A small board is more likely to act on poor performance of the chancellor.

3. Small boards spend less time in discussion and make faster decisions.

4. Board members are more committed, candid and engaged.

5. It is easier to prepare material for seven than for 14.

6. It is easier to schedule meetings for seven than for 14.

Board More Accountable

7. Board members assume greater ownership and accountability, being fewer in number.

8. A 7-member board can tackle issues in greater detail than 14 members.

9. Less chance of a dominant member swaying the Board into groupthink.

10. Meetings run more smoothly with fewer distractions and side discussions.

11. Meetings are less formal, facilitating full participation by all members.

12. Familiarity makes relationships more conducive to sense of common purpose.

Research on governing boards of governmental units validates the points presented above. When city councils have more than seven members, they tend to break into factions.

Legislative Axe Grinding

It seems that the Legislature has a perennial axe to grind with the Board of Higher Education, primarily to steal as much authority over higher education as it can. In Federalist 46, James Madison called it “drawing all power into its impetuous vortex.”

In addition, the Legislature assumes that there is something wrong with the Board. This is an unfounded assumption. The only thing wrong with the Board is that it operates as a board. And that is what was intended from the beginning.

The Legislature needs to know its mind before submitting any more amendments on higher education.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

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