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Ryan Johnson, Published January 14 2013

North Dakota University System: Shirvani makes pitch for adding to staff

BISMARCK – Chancellor Hamid Shirvani made an early pitch to legislators Monday to justify why the university system should expand its staff by 30 workers instead of the seven new employees included in Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s budget proposal.

Now six months into the job, he was on hand during a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting to outline his agenda for boosting graduation and student retention rates, ratcheting up admission standards and achieving big improvements by 2020.

But Chairman Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said the hearing also was a chance to openly discuss “myths” of higher education here – including “buzz” that Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, said is focused on a rumored plan by Shirvani to unilaterally fire five campus presidents at the end of the legislative session.

Board of Higher Education President Duaine Espegard responded to the rumor, saying it was “so far from the truth that I can’t imagine” and that only the board, not Shirvani, has the authority to fire campus leaders.

“Let me say unequivocally here today there is no plan,” Espegard said. “There certainly isn’t a group of presidents that are going to be gone. And let me say this about that as well: we have excellent presidents.”

Making the case

Shirvani told legislators that he came into the job with a “clear charge” of taking the state’s higher education system to the next level. But he said other leaders in the state have had the same goal for the past 25 years, and for now, he’s “flying a plane while building it” and putting the pieces together of an ambitious agenda.

He said meetings with hundreds of lawmakers, community and business leaders, faculty, students, staff and others have shown him that the state wants its higher education system to be more transparent, accountable and efficient while also boosting student outcomes, partnering with business and industry more and raising the rankings of the universities.

“We have a golden opportunity to not only build this system, but build one of the best systems of higher education in this country,” he said.

But Shirvani said many of these broad goals will require more policymakers, lawyers, human resources experts and others than the system’s current staff of 26 can handle.

He said the system now oversees 7,300 full-time equivalent employees and serves 97,522 people – a figure that includes about 49,000 degree-seeking students and thousands of others who rely on the campuses for services such as workforce development and continuing education.

Shirvani said based on the number of degree-seeking students, the system has a student to staff ratio of 1 to 1,885 – well above the 1 to 173 ratio in the University of Minnesota or the 1 to 767 ratio in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

North Dakota’s central office for higher education also pales in comparison to other local organizations, he said, including the North Dakota Department of Transportation that has 62.5 central staff members to oversee its 1,063.5 FTE employees.

Shirvani said he and the board endorse Dalrymple’s executive budget, which would add seven employees to the University System.

But he requested an amendment of an additional $5.4 million over the next biennium to hire all 30 new employees, which would include workers dealing with human resources, risk management, finance and capital and facilities projects.

He said those new staff members would be able to craft policies, study duplication of services, make suggestions to campus leaders and, in some cases, perform duties for individual campuses. But he said it wouldn’t mean taking away control from the 11 colleges and universities.

“What we’re really trying to say is investment in the chancellor’s office will raise the system to a higher level of quality,” he said.

Setting the bar

With the new hires, as well as implementation in the fall of 2014 of a plan to boost student outcomes and admissions requirements, Shirvani said legislators could expect to see significant improvements by 2020.

Shirvani’s goals over the next six years include a 15 percent increase in graduation and student retention rates at North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota, a 10 percent increase at the state’s four-year universities, higher national and international rankings and more partnerships and new programs with corporations for workforce development.

Grindberg said the key word in Shirvani’s plans is “quality,” something he said no one could oppose.

Still, he said it may be hard for the new chancellor to get the kind of broad support and constructive collaboration that legislators, the Board of Higher Education and other stakeholders forged in the 1990s during a time of “turmoil” that resulted in a new vision and the Higher Education Roundtable.

“I think and I feel that the challenge is creating buy-in across the state,” he said.

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

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