News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Monday, September 18, 2017

Regents and the undermining of education

Begin with the fact that South Dakota state government has been defiled by two major scandals involving millions of dollars,  suicides, murder, and the total evasion of responsibility by the people who were in charge and supposed to be exercising oversight of government affairs.  I speak, of course,  of the EB-5 and Gear-Up scandals.  A number of officials and government agencies were involved in those affairs,  but the most troubling aspect is that the state's educational agencies were involved from the inception of those scandals.  When organizations that are responsible for providing the intellectual and character-building resources for young people are involved in nefarious scheming, the probity of the entire state is called into question.

What brings this to mind is a recent story in the local newspaper about the state Democratic Party complaining that the South Dakota government was not following the law in appointing regents.  The law states that of the nine members, no more than six can be members of the same political party. The complaint is that the student regent, who has voting rights on the board, makes seven Republicans on the board.  The regents' attorney says the rule doesn't apply to the student regent.   But that is beside the point.  The point is that regents are appointed on a political basis, and that subjects the universities to political control and agendas.

At one time, the political makeup of the board was incidental to other qualifications,  as it was assumed that the board should be made up primarily of people who had some knowledge of and experience in education.  This changed when Bill Janklow became governor.  He disparaged the Regents' staff by calling them idiots.  However, the Board of Regents seemed to be in turmoil when he took office.  When Carl Opgaard became president of Dakota State shortly before Janklow became governor,  he noted that  "The Board of Regents treated all presidents very shabbily.”  He characterized Janklow as " the sort of governor who wanted to have his hand in everything,  including higher education, despite the legal authority granted the Board of Regents.”

Janklow appointed business people and political cronies to the Regents during his governship, a practice that has continued with his successors.  One of his early appointments was a law school buddy, William Srtska,  who became chair of the BOR, and later a circuit judge. Some manipulations became evident when the Janklow-allied BOR did not inform one member, a former teacher, of meetings.  She resigned.  Janklow  appointed a successor more to his purpose.  However, there has usually been at least one regent on the board identified with education,  but they have never held leadership positions on the board.  In fact, they have rarely been heard from.  Srtska ruled over the Board with an a sledge hammer for a gavel, carrying out the wishes of Janklow,  who made it easy by stacking the BOR with his surrogates.

Janklow did not get along well with university personnel.   Opgaard writes, "Janklow, who took office in 1979, also kept a hand in higher education, and met with considerable opposition from university leaders. At one point, he issued what was termed a "gag order" prohibiting university officials from speaking to the press without permission."  When Janklow came into office,  each president made the case for the funding of their institutions directly with the legislature.  Over time, Janklow placed that task with the Regents, so the presidents made their cases for funding with the BOR, who represented higher education to the legislature.  This arrangement made it more efficient for higher education to operate as a system,  but it displaced the presidents and their staffs as the academic decision-makers for their campuses and put that authority in the hands of the regents.  

Opgaard recalled that as President of DSU, "The most stressful and unrewarding part of the job was working with the South Dakota Board of Regents and the Commissioner of Higher Education."  He said:

 "The Board meddled in internal administrative matters and loved to show their power.  They had to control.  We were unable to change them--I can recall Dick Schleuesner, President of the School of Mines, asserting that we must not blame ourselves because "You can't teach a horse to fly."  We kept the colleges going despite them."
And that has been a truth about the South Dakota Higher Education System since that time.  The colleges delivered education to the students through the work of professors  despite the intrusions of  the Board of Regents.  Over time, the faculty distanced itself from the Board to the point that professors had little idea or interest in what the Board was doing.  And that explains how the EB-5 scandal developed.  

Professors kept a low profile and a distant relationship to the regents for fear that they might attract their intervention and meddling if they were noticed.  The real business of education was carried on as a subversive activity as far as the faculty was concerned.  When the South Dakota BOR conceived the South Dakota International Business Institute  which Joop Bollen was hired to run,  the Regents placed the Institute on the NSU campus, which surprised the faculty because no one knew about anyone from the campus proposing the idea.  Local faculty questioned how the program came about and members of business departments on other campuses raised issues.  One issue was that the curriculum for a degree in international business did not even require a foreign language.  But as the program developed, it was clear that the SDIBI had little to do with the academic mission.  The faculty chose to ignore it as kind of a sacrificial lamb.   If the Regents occupied themselves with the SDIBI, they might leave the academic program to those qualified to run it.

As was made clear during the litigation arising from the EB-5 scandal, Joop Bollen and the SDIBI were not accountable to the university administration.   It had been made clear to the business department chair that Bollen was responsible to the Governor's Office of Economic Development and the department's role was to cooperate, not exercise any academic authority over the program. The Governor's Office, of course, claimed that it assumed Bollen was under Board of Regents supervision.  A whole series of University presidents obediently supported Bollen's operation without question  ( John Hutchinson: 1993-97; John Hilpert (interim 1997-98): 1998-03; Don Cozzetto (interim): 2003-04; Patrick Schloss: 2004-08; Laurie Stenberg Nichols (interim): 2008-09).  Then, in 2009 when President James Smith received notice that NSU needed to cut its budget,  he reviewed the role of the SDIBI and could not reconcile the Institute with the academic mission of the University.  So, he eliminated the SDIBI from the Northern program and evicted it from the campus.  It took up residency in the offices of the Aberdeen Development Corporation and incorporated  under the name South Dakota Regional Center.

The amorphous mess that is the founding of the SDIBI is stated in depositions generated through the litigation:
 
DEPOSITION: John Meyer, Northern State University attorney 
DEPOSITION James Shekleton, Board of Regents General Counsel
DEPOSITION: Joop Bollen, EB5 program director
Harvey Jewett ending 20 years as Regent
From the testimony,  it is clear that the Regents created the SDIBI and imposed it on the campus. Just where it originated is implied strongly in the testimony surrounding the EB-5 scandal.  There is one constant connection that has hovered in the background since Janklow became governor.  That connection is with the Aberdeen law firm Siegal Barnett and Schutz.   A principal in the firm, Joseph  H. Barnett, was a Republican power figure in the state legislature, serving as majority leader and speaker of the house during his 19 years as a member.  Barnett, for whom Northern's physical education center is named, led the effort to provide the new facility for Northern.  He died in office two years before it was completed in 1987.  In June 1988, Janklow appointed the spouse of a law firm member, Cathy Hall, to the Board of Regents.  She was reappointed in March 1993 for a term that was to expire in 1999.  However, she resigned in 1997, and Janklow appointed law firm member Harvey Jewett to succeed her.  Jewett retired from the Board this year.

The building of a physical education center was important for the development of Northern as a four-year institution.  Its sister institutions, in competition for funding and status, often recommended that it be made a junior college.  Janklow closed a state campus in Springfield and turned it into a prison,  and he had plans for Dakota State which he turned into a computer-centered school.  The rivalries of state institutions of higher education in South Dakota have been detrimental to its higher education system  as some faculty and administrators engaged in petty treacheries which invited meddling by the regents and governor.  Northern shared the civic center arena with the high school for its  basketball games, and scheduling was difficult.  The building of the Barnett Center was a boost for Northern, not only in terms of providing an essential physical education and sports center, but in providing a community and regional facility that is extensively used by people in the area.  It consistently ranks high nationally for the number of people who attend its athletic events.  

Reservations about the building came under discussion during some faculty development sessions with visiting academic leaders, however. Some of the more astute Northern faculty and the visiting experts discussed a problem that the naming of the Barnett Center  indicates.  The building was not named for professors and coaches who built the programs of the school, but for a politician whose support, although needed and appreciated, did not necessarily contribute to strengthening the academic stature of the college.  As the professors noted, universities are often the places where political figures like to build monuments to their power.  When Joe Barnett arranged for the building of the physical education center,  he and the college administration understood that a tacit quid pro quo was involved.  Not only would his name be memorialized in the building,  but he and his surrogates would would have an executive voice in the running of the university.  So, a member of Siegal, Barnett, and Schutz has sat on the Board of Regents and overseeing the affairs of Northern State  University from the mid-1980s until this June, when  Harvey Jewett retired.

NSU held a retirement reception for Jewett at the Johnson Fine Arts Center, when it was revealed that the main theater in the Center will be renamed the Harvey and Cynthia Jewett Theater.  With the help of some multi-million dollar bequeathals to Northern,  it is making significant additions to its physical campus under the regental guardianship of Jewett.  Construction on a new science building will begin in the spring.  Jewett received credit for pushing this addition through the Regents and the legislature in the face of resistance by some in the higher education community.  In addition to many improvements made to campus facilities, Northern opened a new dorm this fall with more scheduled for construction.   

Northern does have an attractive campus, although as I pass by it (I live two blocks away) I seldom see people occupying it.  It used to be thronged between class hours.  And sometimes I was assigned class space that was far from ideal, but like most of my colleagues, we concentrated on covering the subject matter, not the atmospherics of our settings.  Northern provided opportunities for students with no money.  Over the years,  I had many students who worked  less-than-mininum wage jobs in town-- lousy jobs which motivated them to get degrees and move on.  Some employers would call students into work when they had classes or even exams.  Most of us accommodated these students when their bosses made such demands on them.  At one time, Northern called itself "a gateway institution," conveying that it provided a chance to move on to a better life.  Some regents and legislators objected to the slogan because it advertised the objective of getting out of South Dakota.  The fact was that Northern had earned a reputation for providing competitive educations which enabled students to build better lives in places that offered them better opportunities.  The faculty was happy to assist in that mission.

Better facilities, however, raise the overhead that is covered by tuition and fees.  Still affordable in comparison with many schools,  Northern is expensive beyond what a part-time job can cover.  Costs for instate students and those from North Dakota and Iowa are estimated at:  


Tuition
$7,191
Fees
$1,089
Room
$3,640
Meal Plan
$3,650
Books/Supplies
$1,200


A person living off campus at home will need to come up with about $9500 to cover a year.    (At the private college where  I previously taught tuition and fees are estimated at $40,908 for a year. ) That is why students who obtain degrees face a crushing debt load at graduation from student loans.  It is no longer possible to work your way through college.

The reason behind the escalating expense of going to college can be glimpsed in a statement made by the man chosen to replace Harvey Jewett on the Board of Regents:

"Our universities are like a business.  We have to compete with all other universities all over the country, so we have to be affordable and competitive.  My philosophy is, if you expect a return, you have to invest. We need to make sure we're investing in our universities so that we've got the facilities that can compete and will attract these young kids to campus."
That old, wrong-headed cliche about running a college like a business is the plague of education.  Colleges and businesses have totally different purposes.  Colleges are to train critical, knowledgeable minds; businesses are to make money.  Both have to adhere to the  realities of budgets.   But the allocation of education funds on a business model limits the accessibility of higher education to those who can afford it and closes off education as a means to improving life.  Higher education in America has become the most expensive in the world and it is a vehicle for inequality.  While it is nice to upgrade campus facilities and particularly to keep abreast of educational technology,  the emphasis on the physical campus eclipses the function of higher education to deliver an advancing curriculum.

At NSU, while the university has made gains in campus facilities, its offerings in the liberal arts have been pared away.  As I look over the course schedules for the department I once worked in, English, I find a bare-bones offering of classes.   Northern is not competing with other institutions in terms of curriculum and diversity of opportunities to explore developments in knowledge.  

One may ask how a scheme such as the EB-5 scam came to be a part of a university,  and the answer is that someone who saw a university as a business could see no reason not to make it a business.  And that someone had more authority than the professional educators.  When Mike Rounds claimed that the EB-5 business was in the hands of the Regents,  he spoke the truth.  However, he had endorsed the scheme.    

When a state's educational agencies become the incubators for financial scams,  the entire state is suspect. 





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