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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published February 07 2013

Shirvani ready to move past office space

BISMARCK – Hamid Shirvani, chancellor of the North Dakota University System, said Thursday, “if the Legislature doesn’t want me to have an office space, that is fine. There are so many important issues to work on.”

Shirvani was testifying in front of the Senate Appropriations Committee to address concerns from committee members over the “chancellor’s suite” that was added to the floor plan of a joint information technology building on the University of North Dakota campus.

The issue helped bring to light legislators’ concern about the blunt leadership style of Shirvani, who took over as chancellor in July.

Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, vice chairman of the committee, said Shirvani and members of the state Board of Higher Education “cleared the air on a lot of issues,” but the testimony did not change his mind about proposing an amendment to buy out Shirvani’s contract.

Grindberg came out Tuesday in favor of removing Shirvani from his position, alleging he is a “questionable” leader who has created “an environment of fear and retaliation.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, opened the hearing, which he said is “not normal,” to call state agencies and employees back to question a specific issue like the office space.

“But the events occurring the past few weeks are unsettling, and have caused serious damage to our faith in the university system to follow legislative directives regarding the construction of new buildings,” he said. “... This ‘kerfuffle,’ or egg laid on our legislative doorstep, has not been good for the system nor the Legislature, and especially this committee, which is considering your budget.”

While the legislators do not plan to keep the IT building plans from proceeding, Holmberg pointed out that the university system is asking for more than $166 million for construction projects during the next biennium and the recent revelations, “are at best extremely disappointing and at worst viewed as an affront to the Legislature and the taxpayers of North Dakota.”

The Legislature approved $12.5 million during the 2011 session for the building that was originally proposed to consolidate IT employees scattered around the UND campus, Fargo and Bismarck. Committee members were concerned the office space was added – decreasing the amount of space for IT employees.

State Board of Higher Edication President Duaine Espegard, who has said he will stand behind Shirvani, testified that discussion about the IT building and the inclusion of an office began “long before the chancellor came on board in July,” he said.

The idea for the office came from the state board, which has given Shirvani a directive to spend more time on the UND and North Dakota State University campuses, he said.

He said the change does not displace any IT personnel or require legislative approval because it does not affect the size or cost of the building.

Randall Thursby, chief information officer for the University System, has been overseeing the plans for the new IT building in Grand Forks. Thursby walked the committee through a timeline of events that have occurred during the development phase of the building.

He highlighted the Sept. 20 update of construction costs the board gave legislators when bids came in higher than expected.

“Neither the scope nor authorized funding was exceeded, but we were trying to keep the (legislators) informed,” he said.

Grindberg said Shirvani and Espegard resolved the questions.

“They addressed it head on,” Grindberg said. “Clearly the intent of the Legislature was not to have an executive suite office in the IT building.”

Sen. Ron Carlisle, R-Bismarck, asked Shirvani about his office in the Capitol building and improvements that have been made to it since he took office last year.

He cited the $5,600 bill the Office of Management and Budget recorded to revamp a bathroom in the University System offices into a small area for a coffee maker and refrigerator.

“It’s our job as appropriators to check things like that from time to time,” Carlisle said.

Shirvani answered by simply illustrating the need for the area, which employees did not have before and have enjoyed since it was built.

The issue of the office in the IT building in Grand Forks was raised in a memo from UND President Robert Kelley. The memo questioned whether the SBHE had the authority to add the office space.

After the hearing, Kelley said if he had been asked to comment, he would have said he was simply asking in his memo to Shirvani for clarification about the authorization of changes.

“I was not throwing anyone under the bus,” Kelley said.

Kelley said he was prepared to testify in front of the committee, but instead just submitted his written testimony.

In it, he said he was notified by Alice Brekke, UND vice president for finance and operations, about the changes and she asked him whether he had authority to sign off on them.

Kelley concluded it would have to be authorized by the Legislature or State Board of Higher Education.

Kelley, North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani and North Dakota State College of Science President John Richman were the only presidents who attended the hearing. All three declined to comment after the hearing on a proposal to buy out the chancellor’s contract.

Espegard concluded the hearing by thanking the committee for listening to the board’s testimony. He said the SBHE will provide any answers to questions from committee members.

“Were here for a purpose of providing the best education in North Dakota,” he said, “not foolishness of where I am going to sit when I come to Wahpeton.”

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