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Published February 27 2013

Forum editorial: Higher ed kettle still steaming

Call it a shot across the bow. Call it a wake-up call. Call it an ominous storm cloud. Whatever the metaphor, the double-barreled vote in the North Dakota Senate to defeat – and then pass – a bill that reserves funds to buy out the university system chancellor’s contract is no small matter. But for a single vote the first time (24-23), Sen. Tony Grindberg’s amendment would have passed. The Fargo Republican, who has been a reliable friend of higher education, got a second vote, and his colleagues passed the amendment on a surprisingly strong 28-19 vote. He had convinced many senators that his concerns about Chancellor Hamid Shirvani’s management style and agenda are valid. After the first vote, senators received additional information from several sources that helped swing the second vote.

It’s a big deal – sentiment that cannot be dismissed by the state Board of Higher Education, no matter their oft-stated “100 percent” support for the new chancellor. Clearly, the chancellor does not command 100 percent support among legislators, students or campus presidents. But no dynamic leader is universally popular. And by virtue of his ideas for the university system, Shirvani is a dynamic and forceful leader.

That being said, it is remarkable that in only six months the chancellor and higher ed board have stirred the higher education kettle to a racing boil. That kettle is always simmering because of the necessary tension between the board and Legislature, but the Shirvani situation stoked the stove. The fallout from that miscalculation is Grindberg’s amendment to set aside $854,000 for the board, if the board – and it is the board’s call – opts to buy out the remainder of the chancellor’s contract.

Given the suspected degree of pro-Shirvani sentiment in the House, it is unlikely the amendment will pass. And even if it does (the second Senate vote, after all, was a shocker) the higher ed board would be loath to buy out the contract of a chancellor that enjoys “100 percent” board support.

There it stands. As we’ve said editorially before, the chancellor has advanced ambitious and excellent ideas for reform: demand more accountability, raise standards for high school graduates to get into a state university or college, and harmonize campuses into a real system. All are worthy goals that can be embraced by North Dakotans who value higher education. But none of it is remotely possible if major players – lawmakers, school administrators and faculty, students and board members – are stewing in an atmosphere of recrimination, stubbornness, mistrust and fear.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.