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Lloyd Omdahl, Published February 10 2013

Omdahl: Too soon to judge Shirvani

It was only a matter of time before the new chancellor for higher education would start raising hackles in North Dakota. His assignment guaranteed it.

Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, already has proposed that the appropriation bill for higher education include money to buy out Chancellor Hamid Shirvani’s three-year contract.

The senator claims that the chancellor’s leadership style is in question and has created an atmosphere of fear. This is a pretty broad charge against a person who has been in the state for only nine months.

Duaine Espegard, president of the Board of Higher Education, has assured Shirvani and the state that the board intends to stay the course.

“We’re doing exactly what the Legislature and the people of the state asked us to do, which is to move up the quality of higher education in North Dakota,” the chairperson said in response to the senator’s allegations.

Espegard is right. After a few scandals in the institutions, we agreed that it was time to get a chancellor who would increase the oversight of the institutions and who would pull the 11 institutions into a more unified system.

So we invited Shirvani to come to North Dakota to do that, and he has been proceeding on the assumption that we meant what we said.

But the truth is that our political culture does not tolerate concentrations of authority. Our system of governance says it all. We have more elected officials, more colleges, more boards and commissions, more local governments and more legislators per capita than almost every other state.

So in this decentralized style of governance, we have a chancellor who must exercise unprecedented authority to increase oversight and reduce the autonomy of the institutions of higher learning in order to achieve the goals the board has outlined.

Speaking for North Dakota’s political culture, Grindberg apparently sees this assertion of authority as a questionable leadership style.

If we are serious about improving the university system, then a strong style of leadership is required, even though it goes against our cultural predisposition to disperse authority.

Shirvani hit the ground running. He was in the state only a short time when he announced some far-reaching suggestions for our colleges and universities. Almost everyone applauded.

But now the balking starts. Increased oversight means more staff to monitor the activities of the 11 institutions under the board. Not only do we not want to staff up but the institutions don’t want overseers inquiring about matters that have always been reserved to university administrators.

To improve the university system, the presidents must be willing to surrender some administrative prerogatives to the chancellor.

For the chancellor to make progress, he must bridge the gulf between North Dakota’s style and the board’s goals. This will require negotiation among all players – and there are many – legislators, students, administrators, university communities, alumni, parents and random ideologues.

To make significant changes with that many constituencies to please, progress will be slower than Shirvani expected. A good deal of time will be required just to build consensus. It will be enough to test the patience of Job.

As Shirvani moves toward the board’s goals, he will become more familiar with the realities of the North Dakota style. Whether we agree with him or not, he deserves more than nine months and one legislative cycle to prove his worth.

Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. Email ndmatters@q.com