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Ryan Johnson, Published February 06 2013

Shirvani left rift in his wake in California

BISMARCK – Questions about his leadership style aren’t new for Hamid Shirvani, the embattled chancellor of the North Dakota University System.

With North Dakota legislators discussing a proposal to allow a buyout of his three-year contract just seven months after he was tapped to head the state’s public universities, faculty from his former university say the institution is still recovering from the “rift” he left behind.

Shirvani served as president of California State University-Stanislaus from 2005 to 2012 before becoming chancellor last July.

Lynn Johnson, an accounting professor and former chairwoman of the Academic Senate that represents faculty at the school, said problems came up well before a November 2009 vote of 264 professors in which 91 percent expressed no confidence in his leadership.

“Ham has a very aggressive and authoritarian management style that just doesn’t work here, and I doubt that it works much in most university environments,” she said.

Shirvani said that vote came about after he made a tough but necessary decision to end the university’s winter term. He said previous presidents had tried for more than two decades to discontinue it, only to face pressure to keep it going.

“The different presidents backed down because they knew it was very simple, and they knew what was going to be the cost,” he said. “Not everybody wants to go through the humiliation of a vote of no confidence.”

Shirvani said he was lauded in another vote in 2009 – receiving his second “President of the Year” award from the student government body of the 23-campus California State University system, an honor he also received in 2007.

Shirvani said the vote of no confidence, as well as other past controversies, came up during the search process. The state Board of Higher Education voted 5-3 in March 2012 to hire Shirvani over the other top finalist, Nebraska higher education administrator Marshall Hill.

Board member Grant Shaft, who led the search committee, said the committee and the consultant search firm investigated the 2009 vote and found it resulted from the unpopular decision among faculty to eliminate the winter term. He said they found the decision was in the best interest of students.

Committee members also balanced the no-confidence vote with Shirvani’s President of the Year honors.

“It’s even more reason to support him as chancellor,” he said.

A divisive choice

Shirvani said his decision to end the winter term came down to two issues: the severe budget woes of California at the time, and that shortening the traditional fall and spring semesters to make time for the four-week winter session jeopardized funding for students who relied on Pell Grants. It essentially forced grant recipients to take the winter term to get full grant funding.

A committee of faculty members studying the issue recommended keeping the winter term, while another committee made up of faculty, students, staff and administrators said to get rid of it, he said.

But Mark Grobner, a biology associate professor and current chairman of the CSU-Stanislaus Academic Senate, said the vote was more about Shirvani’s management style than the actual decision.

He said Shirvani filled the second committee, the one that backed killing the winter term, with “handpicked” members, including two retired faculty members – but no current professors. Grobner said Shirvani ignored faculty requests and a petition signed by more than 3,000 students who wanted to keep it.

At the time, faculty were told eliminating the session would save $2.1 million and help avoid further layoffs in the midst of a need to cut the university’s budget by 20 percent. But he said there’s no data so far that shows any savings.

“It wasn’t the decision so much as the way it was made that was the issue,” he said. “It may very well be that it was a good decision. Because of the way it was done, we’ll never know.”

Shirvani said he wasn’t alone, and other presidents and administrators in the CSU system faced these same issues with faculty within this “highly tense” environment in California.

‘Whatever it took’

Grobner said another concern was the high turnover of administrators during Shirvani’s tenure – an issue that became so bad faculty began to refer to it as the “trail of tears.”

Johnson said the university had four different provosts and four different deans of its College of Business Administration, and several other departures happened under Shirvani’s watch.

She said there was “dissatisfaction” among faculty during Shirvani’s first year on the job, and in his second year, it became strong enough to bring together faculty representatives to try to improve the relationship. But nothing worked, she said, and faculty had to resort to the more “extreme” no-confidence vote.

Johnson said she saw him “a little bit as a bully” because of how he tried to get things done, and several faculty members and administrators told her they were “very much fearful for their positions” if they did or said something against Shirvani.

“We really felt that he was not respecting our culture, respecting the procedures that we had long established and had in place, and he really would do whatever it took to get what he wanted and then try to do it in a way that made it appear as though he were being consultative,” she said.

No stranger to scandal

Shirvani faced other controversies at the university, including a 2010 decision by the school’s alumni foundation to bring in former Republican vice president candidate Sarah Palin for a fundraiser. The California attorney general’s office investigated accusations that officials, including Shirvani, violated public records laws by refusing to reveal financial details of Palin’s visit, but ultimately found no violations.

Shirvani also made the news in June 2008 when his former special assistant received a $10,000 settlement and about six months of paid leave to settle a dispute, according to a report in the Modesto Bee newspaper. Melissa Borrelli had worked for Shirvani for about a year and a half when the incident occurred in May 2007; under the settlement terms, both parties agreed not to make “any derogatory remarks that may disparage each other,” and Shirvani and the CSU system didn’t admit liability.

Grobner said a faculty committee formed after the vote of no confidence now meets regularly with administrators to deal with problems before they “blow up into a bigger issue.” The group is now studying whether the relationship has improved in recent years, and Grobner said a final report will be released in the fall of 2014.

“But I think we’re going to find that his efforts didn’t really pay out,” he said. “Most people didn’t find that what he had done really changed the climate much on campus.”

‘Microscopic’ scrutiny

Shirvani’s past is receiving renewed criticism in Bismarck, and copies of a four-page memo outlining CSU-Stanislaus faculty concerns circulated in the Capitol building Tuesday.

But Shirvani said he’s simply trying to fully build up the North Dakota University System created in 1990 to oversee the state’s 11 public campuses. Doing so has put him under “absolute microscopic examination,” Shirvani said, adding many seem to think the chancellor should simply be a lobbyist who “takes the beating” when problems arise at the campuses.

“I don’t know whether fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve inherited a situation which for 23 years we’re playing ping pong because are we seriously building a system or not?” he said. “No one said it’s going to be easy. But the system, we can’t just call something a system that is not.”


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