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Jennifer Johnson, Forum Communications, Published August 15 2012

Lawmakers say they like chancellor’s ideas for North Dakota University System overhaul

GRAND FORKS – Last year, Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, pushed a bill to reduce the power of the North Dakota University System chancellor. Like many state lawmakers, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s education division was unhappy with the way the system was run.

On Wednesday, the day after new Chancellor Hamid Shirvani announced he wanted to make sweeping changes to the system, including toughening admission standards, Skarphol whistled a different tune.

“He has a refreshing attitude that seems to be extremely open and transparent,” Skarphol said of Shirvani. “If you ask him a question, he will answer it.”

The chancellor’s thought process is “extremely logical, very visionary,” Skarphol said, and the abbreviated version of the plan he’s seen so far is comprehensive enough, that if it’s to succeed, everyone needs to accept it as a whole.

“If you try segregating pieces you don’t like, I think you’re going to lose the effectiveness of what he’s trying to accomplish,” he said.

Other critics of the university system’s governance also greeted Shirvani’s proposal warmly, saying it was long overdue.

Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo a vocal critic of the university system, said Wednesday he has not yet had time to learn the details of the proposals, but he is hopeful they would address funding and governance issues the system has had.

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, a Democrat who represents an area around the UND campus where many students live, said he liked the tougher standards as a general principle.

“I think it’s good we’re challenging them,” he said. “We certainly want to make sure our students are prepared to go to college while still ensuring access for those who are prepared.”

Shirvani’s sweeping reforms also focus on making the cost of higher education more transparent and financial aid more need-based.

Schneider graduated from UND in 2002, and noted the cost of a degree then was less than half of what it is now. National studies confirm that undergraduate students take on an average debt load of more than $20,000 for a four-year degree, he said.

“Improving affordability in the need-based financial-aid side is a step in the right direction, something I hope that legislators will praise as well,” he said.

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Jennifer Johnson writes for the Grand Forks Herald