SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — When Brian Maher first stepped into the role as executive director and CEO of the South Dakota Board of Regents, the world was attempting to navigate the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic.

“As the superintendent of the Sioux Falls School District, I was already immersed in the disruption that COVID was, but now I had to look at it from a higher ed standpoint, instead of a K 12 standpoint,” Maher said Wednesday, a day after his resignation from the BOR was announced.

As Maher entered the top office, the Board of Regents was in a slump and the South Dakota legislature had recently passed legislation prior to his appointment to address the functionality of the organization.

“That wasn’t a real friendly bill that said, ‘Hey, you need to look at how you’re running the business,” Maher said. “We could have looked at that a number of different ways. We chose a very positive route to look at that as an opportunity to improve as a system and that paid off. It’s paid off literally every day since I took the job.”

Senate Bill 55, and the subsequent task force, would shape Maher’s time with the Board of Regents and is the accomplishment he’s most proud of. That piece of legislation created the opportunity to re-envision how to operate the state’s public higher education.

Through SB 55, Maher and the Board of Regents were able to reinvigorate the University Centers in Sioux Falls and Rapid City.

“When I took when I took the job that was described as something that we needed to really take a look at and either breathe life into them or close them down,” Maher said.

Now, the University of South Dakota — Sioux Falls and Black Hills State University — Rapid City have had a “major makeover” that Maher credits to USD president Sheila Gestring and BHSU president Laurie Nichols.

The success of the campuses comes down to how nimble they were, Maher explained.

“We are not known for being nimble and being able to move that big higher ed ship at a pace that most would like to see us move it. I think there’s good reason for that at times and I think other times it can be a bit of a barrier,” Maher said.

That’s why SB 55 was crucial to address the needs of Sioux Falls and Rapid City students and to provide an education system that caters to the workforce needs of the community.

“In both communities, there is a dire need for more health care services so in both instances, a little different route, but in both instances, we’ve looked at really tapping into the populations in those areas and also the workforce needs in those areas,” Maher said. “And I think the combination of those points of view really are and will continue to pay dividends.”

Addressing South Dakota’s ‘brain drain’

Over the last two years, the Board of Regents has kept tuition and fees the same and is hoping to continue that trend again this year.

“We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to keep tuition and fees flat again and think about that in the context of what inflation has done to our nation, let alone to our state, and to be able to do that just speaks volumes. I think… our Board of Regents that that was a priority,” Maher said.

In January, university leaders told the Joint Appropriations Committee that a tuition freeze proposed by the Board of Regents would be critical to keep higher education affordable to South Dakota students.

When asked whether the tuition freeze could help address South Dakota’s brain drain problem, Maher said it’s still too early to tell but in the short-term, there could be a benefit to keeping students in the state for college.

“You’ll see us ticking away at that brain drain and the state will benefit in decades from that happening,” Maher said.

Through the SB 55 task force, Maher said a study was done to address what gaps existed in the workforce that could be addressed through higher education. Health care and education of course made the list, but the third surprised Maher.

“One is in the accounting services; a real need for more accountants across the state,” Maher said.

Cyber security and the investment in Dakota State University’s cyber research initiative is also key to growing South Dakota’s workforce.

“You know, the governor calls that the next big thing in South Dakota,” Maher said. “President Jose-Marie Griffiths at DSU, she’s the visionary there. She’s, again, it’s just somebody that I need to stay out of her way and be a champion for her because our vision obviously has sold this state on investing in that area to the tune of $90 million.”

Passing the torch

While Maher’s time with the Board of Regents hasn’t come to a close quite yet, the process of transitioning responsibilities to Nathan Lukkes, who currently serves as legal counsel for the board, is underway.

“I’m tickled for him, and I’m tickled for the system because he is quality,” Maher said of his replacement. “I’m going to leave and Nathan Lukkes is going to come in and knock it out of the park.”

Maher’s time with the Board of Regents will come to an end in June at which time he will move closer to his family in Nebraska but he’s not retiring yet.

“And I wouldn’t say that I’m retiring, because I think I still have more to offer into education. A lot. My wife would love it if I would retire. But I’m not sure I’m quite ready for that,” Maher said, laughing.