PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota’s state universities will take to heart the recommendations that come from an efficiency study that’s underway and will look for ways to make them work, an official for the South Dakota Board of Regents assured a panel of state lawmakers Friday.

“Trust, but verify,” Nathan Lukkes, the board’s chief attorney, told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee about the approach he thought should be taken. “Trust the process, but at the same time, it’s your job to verify the process.”

The Senate Bill 55 work has been “an eye opener” for the universities and the regents, Lukkes said. “I think folks have heard you loud and clear.”

The regents launched the task force in October in response to a law passed in 2020. The most recent meeting was last week in Spearfish at Black Hills State University and there will be several more. The regents must report no later than November 15 to the legislative committee and the governor.

The regents are established in the South Dakota Constitution to govern the state universities and are appointed by the governor, with Senate confirmation. Senator Jean Hunhoff asked Thursday how lawmakers can get the regents to move forward. “That’s my concern.” 

Representative Steven Haugaard said the regents have the duty. “They just haven’t been doing it.” He asked whether each of the six universities needs a president and whether South Dakota needs all of the campuses. He acknowledged discussions are hard because they dramatically affect communities.

“The ultimate hammer is the allocation of funds from the Legislature. We can certainly cut off a hundred million dollars as an incentive if they don’t do their job,” Haugaard said.  

Representative Chris Karr said legislators have shared the concerns to the others involved in the SB 55 effort. He said the Legislature’s work group was ready two years ago “with the red pens and axe” to start chopping the universities’ budgets but went with the efficiency study instead.

The task force has three committees looking at academics, administration and infrastructure. Karr said universities were already addressing some topics that bothered legislators but didn’t tell them.

Nonetheless there are significant problems and potential efficiencies. The University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University are competing for nursing-degree students with rival programs offered in western South Dakota. Students’ food services could be consolidated. Contracts-software systems are a patchwork at the universities, and the state auditor office’s 18-year-old records system reportedly is so fragile that hard copies of documents are necessary.

Karr said he doesn’t want the November report to gather dust on a shelf. “I believe this is something that is going to be implemented.” And, he noted, the committee will still have the red pens. 

Janice Minder, the regents’ vice president for academic policy and planning, said there already are results. She said the regents have committed to lean-process efficiency training throughout the universities system and will have two internal lean analyses conducted each year. “SB55 has been helpful. Let’s not let it stop.”

Representative Hugh Bartels said he has “a pretty strong commitment” from the regents’ executive director, Brian Maher, and the regents. “I think we’ve got buy-ins to get something done here.” Bartels said standardization of information technology standards, for example, will be a huge change and save a lot of cost. “I’m really excited about that.”

Bartels expressed confidence in the plan producing. “I think we need to keep monitoring it,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a better result than we’re dreading — and I think it’s going to work.”