Interim Chancellor reflects on the perspectives, challenges and accomplishments of his two years as the system’s top leader
With his tenure as leader of the North Dakota University System coming to a close, Larry Skogen has continued to work tenaciously to ensure that headway made during the past two years wasn’t lost in the upcoming transition.
With one more meeting of the State Board of Higher Education to go before he steps down in late June to make way for his successor, Mark Hagerott, Skogen managed to find a bit of time to reflect on the issues that the system and the Board have taken up during the past few years.
First appointed Acting Chancellor in July 2013, then named Interim Chancellor two months later, Skogen said that it had been an interesting, and at times challenging, role.
“I knew that there was and would be much controversy,” Skogen said. “All I knew beyond that is that we had to get back to talking about education and students. So I knew I had to deal with the controversies, but I knew that all the institutions needed to remain focused on the students.”
That concept proved to be quite the balancing act throughout his nearly two full years at the helm of the system. Aiming to keep students as the forefront focus amid criticisms regarding the system or the individual campuses it encompassed could have easily proven a monumental undertaking. Despite those external critiques, Skogen and the State Board of Higher Education were able to affect lasting positive change.
“We were soundly criticized for not having a strategic plan,” he noted, offering a look back on how the Board had gone about formalizing its vision. “I think that getting it in place, making it transparent through the dashboards, and tying what was happening at the institutions to that plan were all crucial. We’re not 100 percent, but we’re in a far better place than we were. I appreciate that the Board and the institutions’ presidents recognized the need to get it done, and have been supportive of the new plan.”
That plan, titled NDUS’ The Edge, illustrates the challenges that the system’s 11 colleges and universities have faced, how they’ve created environments that further foster student success, and how the campuses and system now look to the future. That’s all placed against a contextual backdrop that contains both the economic atmosphere shaping North Dakota’s needs, and comparisons to other regional campuses and systems.
Once a strategic plan was put in place, other factors working against the system at the time were met thanks to the Board’s work and support from the people of the state.
“The two biggest challenges we faced were the constitutional measure to eliminate the State Board of Higher Education and the complaint against the Board filed with the Higher Learning Commission,” Skogen noted. “The first threatened the very independence of higher education; the second threatened our accreditation. The voters resoundingly eliminated the first threat, and we worked very hard to respond to the HLC complaint to get it behind us. Although we have another HLC visit coming up this fall, we’re in a far better position than we were two years ago.”
With those challenges met, the Board was able to take on another issue: that of offering proper orientation and training to incoming Board members in order to bring them up to speed on matters regarding ongoing Board business and the proper way to conduct it. He felt all those challenges had seen positive results.
With time short until he returns to his post as president of Bismarck State College, Skogen said he bore a new appreciation for the hard work done to keep the Board and system office running smoothly. He doesn’t think his leadership style for BSC will be all that much different than before.
“I’m still me and BSC is still a great institution with outstanding, dedicated folks who go to work every day to help students succeed,” he said. “That’s how it was two years ago, how it is today, and how it’ll be after July 1.”
He noted that he will miss the people within the system office, whom he referred to as “hard-working, dedicated, smart and sincere in serving North Dakota and the university system and its 11 institutions.” He would also miss the close working relationships he’s had with the Board members.
“They are equally dedicated, hard working, smart and sincere in carrying out their constitutional duties,” Skogen noted. “Being at a campus, one often feels once removed from them. I’ve enjoyed working with them as we’ve worked through some very difficult issues.”
Now, he was looking forward to what he said had attracted him to higher education in the first place: the education of students, the hard work of campus employees and the rhythm of campus life.
“My first exposure to higher education—as a faculty member and not a student—was at the United States Air Force Academy,” he said. “I found then that I thoroughly enjoyed working with cadets, working with fellow faculty members, and marking time forward through semesters, ending with the pomp of graduation and its celebrations. Much of that is missing at the system level. I look forward to getting back into that environment.”
As one last step to do his best to ensure system-level success, Skogen has been speaking regularly with Hagerott about the needs and wants of both higher education and the public it serves. His biggest advice to his successor? Listen.
“Dr. Hagerott and I have had many opportunities to talk and what he and I are agreed upon is the need to listen to stakeholders,” Skogen said. “He’s going to be doing that.”
In conclusion, Skogen offered one last thought for all who helped make the system as accomplished as possible.
“I appreciate the support of the Board members, the presidents of all the institutions, and the university system staff,” he said. “We all had to be working toward the same goals to see progress, and I believe we’ve witnessed much of that.”
Skogen’s final Board meeting as Interim Chancellor will take place in Fargo June 24-25. His final day will be June 30, with Hagerott shouldering the responsibility the very next day.