Mountain or molehill? Higher Ed Board disagrees on college audit

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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The North Dakota Board of Higher Education is deciding how much weight to give a critical audit report of a Wahpeton college, after one board member on Thursday questioned the accuracy of the review and another said the controversy is not affecting students.

The debate began when board member Kathleen Neset, who heads the group’s audit committee, said she was troubled by two of the findings in the investigation of the North Dakota State College of Science, one involving a conflict of interest and another regarding the school’s lack of cooperation. She added she is worried about the “climate and culture” at the school.

“There is a crisis on campus at NDSCS,” Neset said. “Lives and livelihoods are being impacted and this is not right.”

The audit focused on management of the school’s career workforce program known as TrainND Southeast. It found that Tony Grindberg, the school’s vice president of workforce affairs and former Republican state lawmaker, failed to fill out a form disclosing that his wife worked for a Fargo company selected to formulate a marketing plan for TrainND.

NDSCS President John Richman wrote in a response to the audit that Grindberg’s connection to the company was widely known and the decision to hire the company was “made exclusively by me.”

Neset, who said she supports the career academy, also highlighted a segment in the report that said the school failed to provide requested information and misled investigators about Grindberg’s situation.

“I, for one, feel that these two issues are serious,” Neset said. “They’re well-documented and even carry potential legal penalties.”

Board chairman Don Morton disagreed about the documentation, especially involving requests for emails. Auditors said about 700 emails were provided by the university system office after NDSCS officials failed to make them available. Morton said the requests to the school were “vague and subjective.”

“They didn’t hide anything,” Morton said. “It wasn’t a specific request.”

Ashley Thornton, the board’s student representative who attends Williston State College, said she understands there’s tension between NDSCS employees and administration, but it hasn’t filtered down to students.

“The relationship and climate there is still very positive. And I think the board should hear that,” Thornton said.

The board ordered Chancellor Mark Haggerott to draft a plan for temporary system oversight at NDSCS, but took no formal action on the audit.

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