Reflecting on service, system successes

June 22, 2015


Terry Hjelmstad, Ed. D, Chairman, State Board of Higher Education


A column by Temporary Board Chair Terry Hjelmstad

The final column of Outgoing Board Chairman Terry Hjelmstad

I find myself in the fortunate place of sharing some last thoughts with all of you as I approach the end of my term on the Board. I use the word fortunate, not because I’m nearing the end, but because I’m now given the opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.

There have been plenty of challenges in the past. While I’m not forecasting more challenges to come, I won’t say that they’ll never happen. But when all we do is focus on challenges we forget to take time to look at our successes.  For those of you who know me, as a former coach and educator, I’m an upbeat person and like to focus on what’s right in the world, not what’s wrong.

It probably won’t surprise any of you, then, that this reminds me of a joke:

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his English class one day.
“In English,” he said, “A double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.”
A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

Great English jokes aside, there are some who would ignore any and all successes with a “Yeah, right,” mentality, choosing only to focus on the challenges. While the nature of public service means taking care of challenges on behalf of our greater good, it doesn’t mean forgetting to reflect on what has been done correctly and to successful completion.

Last month, more than 7,400 students finished the course of their studious efforts via graduation from our 11 colleges and universities. That’s a success. While graduation alone doesn’t speak to what comes after, what North Dakota’s students have is a leg up on their competition elsewhere: we rank eighth in the nation in the percentage of young adults with college degrees. That’s a success. Nearly three-quarters of the 76,000 jobs expected to be created in North Dakota by 2020 will require postsecondary education – and our people are getting it. They’ve done the due diligence required by their individual programs of study and have taken what our institutions of higher education have to offer to build their own foundations. That’s a success.

Our student retention rate is higher than elsewhere. Depending on the metric, it’s between 4 percent higher (community college retention rate) and 10 percent higher (four-year university retention rate), meaning our students have an advantage over their national cohorts. That’s a success!

That strategy of retention was built into our strategic plan, and we want to continue doing more to keep it high, if not increase it overall. With cooperation from our system’s stakeholders and support from the Legislature, we will only create a higher success rate for our students.

Our ratio of public colleges and universities to the state’s population is higher than most states, and, according to some reports, so is our ratio of faculty and staff. Some call that a challenge, but I call it a success. Higher numbers of faculty mean lower student-to-educator ratios. So our students have the advantage of a private-school education at a public-school price.  It also means that through research, student counseling and support, administration and facilities, our students are getting what they need. They have the internal support to stay ahead of the curve, and that’s a success.

And finally, while some like to say our costs are too high, the numbers say otherwise. Our four-year institutions, master’s degrees and doctoral degrees are lower across the board than the regional averages, and way lower than national averages. That is a success!

I want to take this time to thank everyone within North Dakota University System, everyone on all our campuses, all the students, and the members of the Board, for helping to create all these successes. I greatly appreciated the opportunity to serve as Chairman for the past six months as I was able to serve with dedicated, talented people who each brought their individual experiences to bear on behalf of the students in our statewide system.

Each person who serves here needs to be a leader. I’ve been privileged to serve on several search committees, and I’m sure that upcoming searches will produce quality candidates — innovative and talented people we need to fill those roles.

I am incredibly confident that our 11 colleges and universities will continue to do a fine job in educating our students, shaping them into the workforce and leaders that our state and nation will need in the future. And I believe that the new Board will continue to serve the will of the people of the state, to help ensure that the new Chairman, Kathleen Neset, and the incoming Chancellor, Mark Hagerott, have the support they need to guide the Board and system into a future of continued excellence and success!