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Ryan Johnson, Published December 22 2012

Shirvani tasked with modernizing North Dakota university system

BISMARCK – Chancellor Hamid Shirvani already has overseen sweeping changes to higher education after only six months on the job.

But he said many of the changes are simply a matter of fully empowering the North Dakota University System by following through on suggestions dating back to the 1980s that hadn’t become a reality – until now.

“When the state Board of Higher Education appointed me, they clearly gave me a mandate, and that mandate was, ‘Ham, build the system and take it to the next level,’ ” he said. “The first step is that we have to put the system together.”

That effort included the “Pathways to Student Success” plan approved this fall that will ratchet up admission standards. It’s expected to result in a more clearly defined three-tier system of the state’s 11 public campuses, with North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota bearing the strictest requirements as research universities.

Shirvani also has pushed for several policy changes, both big and small, that he said are less about “micromanagement or centralizing power” and more about clearly defining the roles of the college presidents, the chancellor and other leaders.

He said he’s not done making changes, and the state can expect to see more shifts in policies and practices. His goal is to build a system that better serves students.

For now, he said he’s working with an incomplete system and trying to get his ambitious agenda through to legislators, university staff and the general public.

“It’s like I’m flying a plane while I’m building it,” he said. “One day I’m on the wings and slipping; one day I’m hanging to the window; suddenly, I’m sitting in the cockpit. But it’s going to be like that until the plane is fully built.”

Dealing with controversy

Many of the changes made under Shirvani’s watch were simply putting existing procedures into clear language, including a host of board policy manual changes approved in September, said Board of Higher Education President Duaine Espegard.

Several of these revisions dealt with the authority of campus leaders, specifying that the chancellor can initiate dismissal of college presidents for just cause and instructing them to report directly to the chancellor while also putting Shirvani in charge of any searches for a new president.

The decision to fire a president would ultimately be up to the board, not Shirvani.

“I don’t look at it as power grabbing,” Espegard said. “I think it’s really writing it down so that there’s a clear understanding of who’s got what to do.”

The changes don’t mean Shirvani runs the universities, Espegard said. Instead, the presidents are still tasked with running their institutions while Shirvani and board members set the policies that guide the overall system.

Espegard said when Shirvani got the job in March, officially taking the helm on July 1, he instructed Shirvani to look at all existing policies to clean up language and revise when necessary.

Because of that instruction, Espegard said the board will eventually look at all policies throughout the year.

“I think these are all fair policies and probably more clearly laid-out policies,” he said. “To run a system, you certainly have to have some good policies.”

Espegard said some of the changes are happening now in response to controversies that hit the higher education system in recent years. Scandals included inflated enrollment counts and awarding degrees to foreign students who didn’t complete requirements at Dickinson State University, and an outcry following an alumni-funded new home for the NDSU president that was twice as expensive as the original budget.

Espegard said cleaning up the language and defining how to handle future problems is all about accountability and transparency.

He doesn’t expect to see the same kind of power struggle the state faced last decade, when then-Chancellor Robert Potts resigned in 2006, accusing former NDSU President Joseph Chapman of engaging in “a calculated effort to undermine the effectiveness” of the university system and his role as chancellor.

Espegard, who was in the Legislature at the time, said it was a case of Potts not having the support of his board.

“We hire a chancellor, we pay the chancellor a lot of money and we expect him to run it under the policies and procedures that are established,” Espegard said. “If he’s doing that, we’re going to support him.”

Changing for the future

Shirvani said the work he’s overseeing now is in line with top recommendations that came out of a Bush Foundation report in 1986, challenging North Dakota to create a cohesive system of higher education with a shared vision.

Former Chancellor Larry Isaak saw many of those suggestions implemented beginning in December 1989, when voters rejected tax increases and higher education was caught up in the major financial crisis that struck North Dakota and the nation at the time.

By 1990, significant changes created the position of chancellor, replacing a commissioner of higher education, and established the university system that Shirvani now leads. Isaak said the efforts brought the separate campuses together while ensuring their autonomy.

“The primary focus of the system that the board wanted to see was much more extensive collaboration on academic and administrative issues,” Isaak said. “The board recognized really that there was a set of very diverse campuses and that a one-size-fits-all policy agenda really doesn’t work, but at the same time, there was a need for a focused, coordinated and collaborative higher education enterprise.”

Isaak, who rose to the position of chancellor in 1994 after 10 years as vice chancellor for administrative and student affairs, said the system was well-established during his time in office until he stepped down in 2003. He is now president of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact based in Minneapolis.

He said change is inevitable in an organization as large and complex as a university system. The Higher Education Roundtable that stemmed from 1999 legislation was one example, with the effort bringing together dozens of business, higher education and political leaders who recommitted to a unified system that would best serve the state.

“It always needs to evolve because the needs of the citizens change,” Isaak said.

Recently retired Sen. Dave Nething, R-Jamestown, said the state has made strides toward a comprehensive system in recent decades and now has a solid system in place. He said the campus leaders are “all pulling in the same direction” to improve even more.

“That wasn’t always true,” Nething said. “They stood out there like a bunch of silos with everybody trying to take care of themselves only. Now there’s a strong belief in the university system itself, and cooperation is so much better than it used to be.”

Nething said some “turmoil” in recent years, including the president’s house scandal at NDSU and Dickinson State’s issues, shifted the focus from the students to those isolated incidents.

“What I think they’re trying to do now is regroup, and I think they’ve got a pretty good plan in place,” he said.

Nething said there are still plenty of issues, including ensuring high school students are ready for college and revamping admission standards to prevent students who aren’t ready from wasting their money.

But the state also has the chance now to fully adopt the recommendations that stemmed from the 1986 Bush Foundation report and a subsequent study in the mid-1990s, he said. It’s something he and other legislators couldn’t fully accomplish in the late 1980s when budget problems limited their options.

“We just didn’t have the resources to do what everybody would have liked to have done,” he said.

Shirvani said North Dakota’s strong economy means the state now has a “golden opportunity” to make those changes.

It’s an effort he said will result in one of the nation’s top university systems and further unite the 11 campuses to provide the best education and training possible.

“It’s not about egos, and it’s not about personal agendas,” he said. “It’s about how we can get together and serve the students, which are our clients and are the core of what we do.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587