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TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published February 26 2013

ND Senate rejects Shirvani buyout funding by one vote

BISMARCK – An attempt to provide funding to the State Board of Higher Education to buy out the contract of University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani failed by a single vote Tuesday.

The proposal came as an amendment to the University System budget making $854,520 available to buy out the remainder of Shirvani’s contract “in the event the state board chooses to seek a settlement agreement” with the chancellor.

The amendment failed 24-23.

Shirvani has been criticized for what some say were quick changes and mishandling of the University System since he took over the post in July. After the vote, Shirvani said in an interview that he is “humbled and pleased of the action of the Senate.”

The amendment was sponsored by Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, who said his amendment was about “providing an environment of trust and respect,” something he has indicated is lacking under Shirvani’s leadership.

The vote was done as a verification vote. In a verification vote, votes are submitted electronically but there is no official record, unlike a roll call vote. Roll call votes are not typically used on amendments. Amendments are usually approved through a voice vote, but a verification vote is sometimes used to allow the president of the Senate to know the exact vote tally.

“It was a close vote. I respect the decision of those elected, my colleagues,” Grindberg said afterward. “At the end of the day, you move on.”

Grindberg said he did not try to get a vote count before Tuesday’s vote and only spoke to other Senate members informally about his amendment.

He said other legislators may be looking at ways to address Shirvani’s role as chancellor.

The higher ed board has continually voiced its support of Shirvani since Grindberg announced his intention of proposing the amendment in early February.

Sunday, the board issued a statement of support for Shirvani, a day after the North Dakota Student Association, made up of representatives from the state’s 11 public colleges and universities, passed a vote of “no confidence” in the chancellor and a resolution in support of Grindberg’s amendment.

“The board remains in full support of the policies adopted by the board and implemented by Chancellor Shirvani,” according to the statement, issued by email.

Caitlin Drogemuller, public relations officer for the NDSA, said after the vote that the university students are “disappointed it didn’t go through, but we hope the vote of no confidence will carry some weight with the board.”

“Should he remain in his position, we hope he takes these attempts to remove him into consideration, and change his policies and how he works with the students and universities,” she said.

Grindberg told the Senate body he based a large portion of his argument to buy out Shirvani off the six cornerstones within the Roundtable of Higher Education report, a 2001 study that addressed a long-term vision and issues relative to North Dakota’s higher education system. The pillars include: economic development connection, education excellence, flexible and responsive system, accessible system, funding and rewards and sustaining the vision.

“Clearly, his rapid movement is a 180-degree turn of what we largely experience with our shared vision plan adopted in 2001,” he said.

Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, voted for the amendment so the board has the option for the buyout. However, she said the higher ed board shares some blame for questionable decisions by the University System.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who voted against the amendment, was concerned about the effect the vote would have on the legislative branch’s role in government.

“We don’t determine through amendments who is going to be the director of human services, even if we don’t like him or her,” he said as an example. “We don’t have any authority over who that person is. The only authority we have is the authority of the purse.”

During debate on the amendment, Sen. Joe Miller, R-Park River, said college students he spoke with did not provide specifics about their complaints about Shirvani. He added that the buyout comes at a time when Shirvani is asking the Legislature for help with more employees.

“Let’s give him time and let him correct his mistakes,” Miller said.

Sen. Karen Krebsbach, R-Minot, said the students “voted for us to do exactly what is proposed.”

“I have great faith in the young people in the state,” she said. “I know they seriously reviewed this matter and diligently did their research.”

Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, who has publicly supported Shirvani throughout the legislative session, called the student votes “beyond ridiculous at best and totally inappropriate” in a letter sent to newspapers.

He said Tuesday, “I congratulate the Senate for their good judgment.”

When asked whether another idea may surface in the House to remove the chancellor, he said, “It’s a lot different of an environment (than in the Senate) and a lot more potential support for him.”