- Associated Press - Sunday, February 1, 2015

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - It was clear what the new chair of the North Dakota Board of Higher Education was trying to do in his first day at the helm: Terry Hjelmstad wanted to put everyone at ease.

Hjelmstad, a retired public schools administrator, is taking over for Kirsten Diederich, who resigned after some lawmakers threatened to block her confirmation for a second term. Hjelmstad will be at the helm until June, when his term expires.

The lifelong North Dakotan welcomed every speaker with anecdotes ranging from sports to family trees.

“I tried to add a little levity to the meeting,” Hjelmstad said. “I’m not trying to make a joke out of anything. That’s just my style.”

Hjelmstad and others believe Diederich took the fall for a board that has been at odds with legislators for a decade over rising tuition costs and the feeling that administrators at the colleges and university system have not been held accountable for their actions. That feeling was compounded by several violations of the state’s open meeting laws.

Hjelmstad said it’s time for both sides to get on the same page.

“We kept hearing from legislators that the perception of the public was not very good of the state board,” Hjelmstad said. “But you know what? The public’s perception of the Legislature isn’t very good either. We need to work together to improve that.”

Diederich resigned a couple of months after residents voted overwhelmingly to keep the part-time board members in charge of higher education rather a full-time, three-member commission appointed by the governor. Hjelmstad didn’t necessarily view the vote as a mandate for the state board; rather, he believes people do not want the government in the business of running the colleges.

He also believes that some lawmakers were vindictive and Diederich paid the price.

“She was making every effort she could to open up and be transparent,” Hjelmstad said. “Apparently some people didn’t appreciate her style, but she is just a good, kind-hearted person who is sympathetic to the needs of the students.

“She put them first and that is why she resigned. She didn’t want the limelight on her.”

Hjelmstad, who lives in Phoenix in the winter, said he hopes his last few months on the board will help mend some hard feelings and get the system through two major issues: the higher education budget bill and finding a new chancellor.

Hjelmstad said there are good signs. He noted that the confirmation hearing for board member Kevin Melicher, of Fargo, went smoothly, and his first meeting as chair came in one minute under the wire.

“We said the meeting was going to run until 5 and when we adjourned it was 4:59,” Hjelmstad said, chuckling.

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