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Ryan Johnson and TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published February 05 2013

Fargo lawmaker proposes buying out Chancellor Shirvani's contract; cites questionable leadership, 'environment of fear'

A Fargo lawmaker is pushing a plan to buy out the contract of Chancellor Hamid Shirvani just seven months after he took the helm of the North Dakota University System, claiming Shirvani is widely seen as a “questionable” leader who has created “an environment of fear and retaliation.”

But state Board of Higher Education President Duaine Espegard said the board, which holds the power to dismiss the system’s top administrator, is “100 percent and whole-heartedly” behind the chancellor, and Shirvani said he has no plans to resign over what he sees as a “public attack.”

Sen. Tony Grindberg said Tuesday he would amend Senate Bill 2003, the higher education funding bill now in the Appropriations Committee where he serves as vice chairman, to include simple language similar to “the State Board has the authority to buy out contracts.” The effort would add money from the general fund to cover the expense, the Fargo Republican said.

With more than two years left on the contract, which runs from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2015, that move could cost $836,620, based on Shirvani’s $349,000 annual salary alone.

“In my opinion, Chancellor Shirvani’s leadership style is in serious question, and his methods of campus communication have created an environment of fear and retaliation,” Grindberg said. “In my 20 years of legislative service, I have never experienced such strong widespread opinions of questionable leadership and mistrust.”

Shirvani said he was “really quite shocked and amazed” about the “preposterous” development, and said Grindberg seemed to hold a “specific dislike” for him since he was appointed to the office. But he said the effort may stem from his work over the past seven months to build up the university system and improve academic outcomes at the state’s 11 public campuses.

“I don’t have any reason why he feels the way that he feels,” he said. “The only thing I can tell you is I think he’s just a strong proponent of the old model.”

The funding bill – which includes Shirvani’s request to add 30 employees to the university system’s payroll, 23 more than recommended by the governor’s budget – will be discussed in a hearing Thursday.

‘Not a pleasant thing’

The state Board of Higher Education was created through a 1938 ballot initiative by citizens, and the board has since been tasked with overseeing the public institutions largely outside of direct governmental authority.

Article VIII of the North Dakota Constitution specifies the chancellor “shall be responsible to the state board of higher education and shall be removable by said board for cause.” Board Policy 304.1 further outlines that process, specifying the agency can remove the chancellor for just cause during a contract term “following written notice of its intent to do so and an opportunity for an evidentiary hearing.”

Grindberg’s amendment wouldn’t force the board to remove Shirvani, he said. It would only provide money necessary for a buyout. If that money isn’t used by the board, it would sit in the university system budget and likely roll into the next biennium, Grindberg said.

“This is not a pleasant thing to be doing, but with the amount of support and comments I’ve been getting the feeling and uncertainty is widespread,” he said.

Grindberg, former director of North Dakota State University’s Research and Technology Park, said he is not offering the amendment on behalf of NDSU.

“I’m hearing statewide people are concerned,” he said.

When asked to provide specific examples demonstrating the issues with Shirvani, Grindberg pointed to a flap that became public last week in which University of North Dakota President Robert Kelley objected to a plan to create office space for the university system in a new joint information technology building in Grand Forks for UND and the university system.

A UND spokesman said the proposed amendment “is not about the University of North Dakota, so we don’t have anything to say.”

Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, said Grindberg “has every right to offer an amendment just like the rest of us.” But Flakoll, a finalist for the post Shirvani was tapped for in March 2012, declined to comment when asked if he shared Grindberg’s sentiments.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said the Legislature lacks constitutional authority to fire someone and said he wouldn’t have drafted the amendment, but that’s a right of every legislator.

“I don’t think it is our job to say who the chancellor is,” he said. “Our job is to work with him or her.”

North Dakota Student Association President William Woodworth said he couldn’t comment because he hadn’t discussed the amendment with student leadership. But he planned to have a conference call with delegates from each school and said the NDSA will likely take a formal stance during its Feb. 22-23 meeting in Bismarck.

Spokesman Jeff Zent said Gov. Jack Dalrymple didn’t have a clear opinion on the issue because he hadn’t seen the proposal, which was still being written on Tuesday. But Zent said the governor is monitoring the situation, and said it would be illegal to threaten to veto legislation.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said the House will “sit back and watch” as the Senate looks at this amendment.

“There’s probably a worthy discussion whether or not the right guy is running the ship there or not,” he said. “That’s up to the Senate to decide what they do with it, and then the House will deal with it when it comes across.”

Attempts to reach top administrators from Minot State University and NDSU – including NDSU President Dean Bresciani – were not successful.

Espegard said the issue seems to come down to “personal attacks” on Shirvani. He said the board fully supports his work so far and the sweeping reforms he’s already overseen. Legislators need to “give him a chance,” he said.

“We’re doing exactly what the Legislature and the people of North Dakota asked us to do, which is to move up the quality of higher education in North Dakota,” he said. “We’re not going to tolerate any tactics that take us back to the old model, and maybe some want the old model, but that’s not the model we follow.”

Espegard said this isn’t the first time North Dakota’s higher education leader wasn’t given a fair chance – in 2006, then-Chancellor Robert Potts resigned, 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.

“They let him run him out, didn’t they?” he said. “This is the same thing, but this time you have a board that’s 100 percent behind the chancellor.”

‘Distraction’ now moot

Shirvani said he was given a “mandate” upon being hired to take the university system to the next level and improve low graduation rates, student retention rates and other woes among the campuses.

“The state Board of Higher Education hired me to build a real system, and I’ve taken my job very seriously as they wanted me,” he said. “Everything that has been going on is our steps toward building a system, and has by no means been micromanagement or sitting down and managing 11 campuses.”

Shirvani said he’s taken a “result-oriented” approach, calling for the “Pathways to Student Success” plan passed by the board last fall that aims to beef up graduation rates and improve academic outcomes by raising graduation standards. He’s also led the way in rewriting many board policies, an effort he said is trying to put basic policies and structures in place to more clearly guide the campuses but still leave flexibility for campus leaders.

But he said he’s been dogged by “public attacks” in recent months, including the office space dustup.

He said the issue has been a “distraction” to higher education officials’ work, a matter “blown way out of proportion.”

The plan was challenged by Kelley, who said in a Jan. 18 memo to Shirvani that the funding the Legislature approved in 2011 for the IT building didn’t include office space for Shirvani and the university system.

Shirvani said misinformation about the plans implied the space would be his. But it was meant to be a multipurpose office available to many higher education officials, and he planned to only use the space while visiting the UND campus – something the board asked him to do more of to develop a stronger presence in eastern North Dakota.

Either way, he said that issue is a moot point now because he has decided he will not use the IT building.

Shirvani said he will meet the board’s directive of being more visible outside of Bismarck by traveling frequently. He said he has arranged to spend time in the NDSU Alumni Center while in Fargo and will have office space on the Williston State College campus while in the west.

While in Grand Forks, he said he’ll sit in a cafeteria if he has to so he can be available to students, faculty and others on the UND campus.

“I don’t want to waste any more time over it,” he said of the IT building issue.

Forum News Service reporters Amy Dalrymple, Mike Nowatzki and Jennifer Johnson contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587 and Forum News Service reporter TJ Jerke at (701) 255-5607.