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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published February 06 2013

Chancellor’s style rankles legislators, but board says it’s what they asked for

BISMARCK – Chancellor Hamid Shirvani has told certain legislators that five of the 11 college presidents are unqualified or insubordinate and will probably be relieved, an example of the overbearing style of leadership that has some lawmakers pushing for his removal, a Bismarck legislator said Wednesday.

Rep. Bob Martinson said Shirvani’s missteps include how he’s treated presidents and other staff, removing experienced personnel and asking legislators right away for 30 new employees for the North Dakota University System.

“From the day he arrived, the chancellor’s received extremely poor advice,” said Martinson, a Republican. “If he got better advice, it appears he didn’t listen.”

But Shirvani disputed Martinson’s account Wednesday, saying “absolutely not” when asked if he made the comment about the presidents.

Shirvani is at the center of controversy this week after Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, said he plans to push an amendment that would provide funding for the state Board of Higher Education to buy out Shirvani’s contract, citing an environment of fear and retaliation that the chancellor has created in his seven months on the job.

Grindberg said he does not plan to introduce the amendment today when the Appropriations Committee meets to discuss House Bill 2003, the higher education funding bill, because the committee already has a lot of work scheduled for today.

Chairman Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, has said the committee’s 11 a.m. hearing will be to get answers to questions the committee has about a proposal to put chancellor’s office space in an information technology building at the University of North Dakota. While the building is on the UND campus, it is a joint facility with the state University System.

Since complaints from UND President Robert Kelley and legislators have surfaced, Shirvani has scrapped plans to use the IT building.

Grindberg said he hasn’t decided when he will introduce an amendment.

Board member Grant Shaft of Grand Forks, who led the chancellor search committee, said board members agree with public statements Chairman Duaine Espegard has made about the board’s support for Shirvani.

“I believe he has 100 percent board backing without exception,” Shaft said.

Shaft said he’s waiting for Grindberg to articulate what his specific concerns are.

Board Vice President Kirsten Diederich of Fargo said Wednesday board members are proud of the direction in which Shirvani is taking the university system.

“He certainly has my full support,” Diederich said. “I’d just like to get back to the business at hand.”

Other board members either didn’t return calls seeking comment or referred questions to Espegard.

Shaft said legislators have expressed to the board a desire for a strong chancellor and they had concerns that campuses were given too much latitude and not enough accountability. Legislators also have indicated they wanted a stronger ability to monitor compliance on the campuses, he said.

“What’s perplexing from what we’re hearing from some legislators like Sen. Grindberg is it is exactly the opposite of what we heard from them last session,” Shaft said.

Shirvani was the best candidate to be the kind of chancellor legislators were asking for, Shaft said, and he also had a strong vision for how to take the university system to the next level.

The board directed Shirvani to make improvements “immediately and aggressively” and not allow the process to take several years, which is why several personnel changes occurred quickly, Shaft said.

“He has quickly and efficiently met every mandate that he’s received from the board,” Shaft said.

Martinson said the “arrogance” coming from Shirvani and the board president are “unbelievable,” and he’s heard Grindberg will have enough support for his proposal.

“It’s probably the most tone-deaf board I’ve ever seen,” Martinson said.

But reaction from other legislators has been mixed.

Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, called Grindberg’s plan “totally unacceptable” Wednesday.

Skarphol said legislators want a higher education system that functions in the best interest of students in the most financially responsible way. Because of changes Shirvani is making to achieve that, “there are some relatively high levels of discomfort,” Skarphol said.

Sen. Ron Carlisle, R-Bismarck, said he’s told Grindberg he will support a buyout of Shirvani’s contract in whatever venue it’s introduced. He said he’s disappointed with Shirvani’s leadership and the proposal to put office space in the IT building was “the one that kind of tipped it.”

Requesting 30 new positions to the system office is the kind of proposal that prompts concerns from the public, Carlisle said.

“I think the board has lost touch,” Carlisle said.

Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, said she’s heard concerns about Shirvani’s leadership style and she doesn’t think presidents have the support to do their jobs. She pointed to Shirvani’s policy change to reduce the length of presidents’ contracts.

Hawken said she once asked Shirvani a question in a committee meeting and he responded in an intimidating manner and has pointed his finger at her and another legislator.

When asked about that, Shirvani said he is “under absolute microscopic examination here.”

“I am a passionate person and when I believe in something I speak very passionately and I express it very passionately and maybe they’re not used to it,” Shirvani said. “If they give me a chance and sit down one to one, they would get to know me better. Certainly it’s not a one-way street. I’m going to do my best to get to know every one of them but they’re a large number.”

Members of the North Dakota Student Association discussed the matter during a conference call Wednesday but will not take a stance until their Feb. 22-23 meeting.

North Dakota State University student Robert Vallie, a former board member who voted against hiring Shirvani, said he was hopeful that Shirvani would be successful, but his fears that he would be a “polarizing figure” are coming true.

Vallie said students don’t have as much direct contact with the chancellor as they once did and Shirvani has moved so aggressively on some policy changes that their opportunity for input has been limited.

UND student leader Shane Gerbert said communication with Shirvani hasn’t been as strong as with former Chancellor Bill Goetz, but he attributes that to how busy Shirvani is moving forward with policy changes.

“Understandably, he’s busier,” Gerbert said.

North Dakota State College of Science President John Richman said what’s happening now is between legislators and the university system leaders. When asked if he’s had any leadership problems with Shirvani, Richman said “no, I have not” and said he remains focused on fulfilling the mission of NDSCS.

Attempts to reach the presidents of UND and NDSU were unsuccessful.

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Reporter Ryan Johnson contributed to this report.