PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The South Dakota Board of Regents, who govern the state’s public universities and two special K-12 schools for the deaf and visually impaired, recently chose Brian Maher as the new executive director and chief executive officer for the system. Maher had earlier announced he would be stepping down as superintendent of the Sioux Falls public schools. Capitol News Bureau reporter Bob Mercer recently posed some questions to him about the transition.
If memory is accurate, you would be the first South Dakota person chosen for this post since Ernie Buckley, three decades ago. Your time leading South Dakota largest K-12 school district is a different experience set. What did you highlight to the regents?
MAHER: My focus was on learning the position, working hard and developing relationships with a wide variety of constituents. I certainly have much to learn. I also discussed the similarities of being the leader of the Sioux Falls School District. The complexities of running a large, multi-campus organization are many. I also know there are many – many – differences that exist. My work ethic will be critical to help me understand and learn about life in higher ed.
How long is your contract? What do the regents expect from you during that time? Will those expectations be in writing?
MAHER: I have a one year contract. I believe the expectations are very much the same as they were for my predecessor. I have reviewed the expectations written for Dr. Beran and will work to accomplish the goals and tasks set out in that information. In addition, there is a strategic plan. The strategic plan will be our guiding light – our north star.
This is a chicken and egg question: What came first — your decision to retire, or the regents’ interest in you as a possible candidate? What steps did you go through to be selected?
MAHER: If you will review what I said back in December, I was very clear that I was resigning – not retiring. At no point did I believe I would be walking away from the workforce. At that time I had no knowledge that the Board of Regents position would be vacant. I knew I would be resigning from the position in Sioux Falls and I knew I would be working – I had no idea I would be working in this position. I believe I first learned of this opportunity in April.
One of the changes the regents made in their qualifications this time was loosening the geographical requirement: The executive director won’t have to live in the Pierre area throughout the year. Are you moving to the Pierre area or will the Sioux Falls area — home to the USD Community College, and within a relatively short drive of USD, SDSU and DSU — remain your base, other than during legislative session?
MAHER: I had no idea what was next when I resigned as the superintendent in Sioux Falls. We sold our home. We were pretty certain we were headed to a job in Kearney, Nebraska. At least for the coming year I will be living in a home in Pierre. I believe this is the best situation for the first year – at a minimum. I should have a very good idea of what the job truly requires at the conclusion of the first year. Quite frankly, I look forward to living in Pierre and gaining a better understanding of many parts of South Dakota that are still unknown to me.
Maybe it’s always been this way and I didn’t realize it, but in recent years the regents seem to rely heavily on donations for new classroom buildings and for student scholarships. The Legislature has seemed fine with that. The Legislature however has struggled to find money for buildings, and the tuition ratio has skewed toward students paying more than the Legislature provides. Do you have any observations about those conditions?
MAHER: Given my infancy in this position, I am not yet prepared to talk in any detail about this issue.
The Sioux Falls and Rapid City “university centers” that were built during the mid-2000s haven’t found success, even though they are in South Dakota’s two largest cities, and the Pierre center has closed. Looking ahead 10 years, what is your vision for what those could be?
MAHER: My vision is still very cloudy on this topic. However, my time in Sioux Falls allowed me to see a few options that were attempted at the Sioux Falls campus. When I think of those campuses I couple their future with the change that has taken place in our society due to COVID-19. I wonder if there hasn’t been an inflection point in society and education that allows us to rethink how we will deliver education going forward. I believe both campuses are tremendous resources in our largest cities. I look forward to exploring possibilities that will utilize these two resources and help our state develop its workforce.
A general question: Why this job now?
MAHER: This might be the best question of all! For me the answer is easy – opportunity. I didn’t know what was next for me professionally. I had opportunities to look at larger superintendent positions around the nation. None of those opportunities matched professional ambition with personal desire. I really began to focus on opportunities in higher education. Each opportunity had a certain “feel” that came with the option. When this option came my way, the feel was excellent and one that didn’t come with any personal reservations . When President Bastian offered the job, the answer was an easy “yes” for me.