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Published March 14 2013

READ LETTER: 6 former campus heads want Shirvani fired, warn of ‘presidential exodus’

FARGO – In a highly critical letter to state Board of Higher Education members, six former North Dakota college and university presidents on Thursday recommended the board fire University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani, calling him “wrong for North Dakota.”

Former Valley City State University president Ellen Chaffee, who emailed the letter to board members, said she and the five other former presidents who wrote it – all of whom still live in North Dakota – did so “because we’re deeply concerned.”

“From my point of view, the Board of Higher Education is responsible for this mess, and by writing this letter, we express our hope that they have the potential to lead us out of it,” she said in a phone interview. “The way to do that is to restore trust.”

Chaffee said the stakes “are absolutely huge,” and she cautioned that the current path could prompt sitting university and college presidents to seek employment elsewhere.

“I believe there is real potential for a presidential exodus, and the quality of the presidents leaving will be absolutely irreplaceable,” said Chaffee, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket in 2012.

Asked if she’d spoken with current presidents and gotten that feeling from them, or was basing it on her own experience as a president and how she would feel in their position, she said, “It’s both.”

In their letter, the former presidents note that while tensions between the board and the Legislature are inevitable, “This time is different from anything we have seen in our 40-plus years.”

Specifically, they contend the board has:

• Allowed Shirvani to deprive the board of advice and counsel from its executive leaders.

• Approved a chancellor-recommended termination policy for presidents “that guarantees you will not attract many, if any, highly qualified candidates as new presidents except perhaps those whose first love is North Dakota and who are otherwise financially secure.”

• Apparently committed multiple open-meetings violations in the past eight months “at the urging and by arrangement of the chancellor.” Those alleged violations were the subject of a board meeting Thursday, which Chaffee attended.

“If legally upheld, these violations undermine the Board’s reputation and credibility,” the letter states. “In any case, the behaviors about which we have read indicate a level of mistrust and inside dealing that is both unprecedented in our experience and well outside the expectations of North Dakota taxpayers.”

The letter also is critical of a three-tier admissions system, the centerpiece of a new strategic plan, saying it’s “neither new nor evidence-based” and there are “far more effective strategies for improving student success, most of which were already under way in the NDUS before last summer.” Shirvani’s three-year contract began July 1.

Last month, the Senate approved adding $854,520 to the university system’s budget to buy out Shirvani’s remaining contract.

The letter comes after the university system’s student association approved a “no confidence” resolution on Shirvani on Feb. 24.

Current university and college presidents haven’t spoken publicly about Shirvani’s leadership since state lawmakers began calling it into question. Requests from The Forum to interview North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani and University of North Dakota President Robert Kelley about Shirvani have been unsuccessful.

“That’s our intent, to provide a voice when they are – and rightly so – they’re not in a position to speak out,” said another of the letter’s authors, Jim Ozbun, who led North Dakota State University from 1988 to 1995.

Also contributing to the letter were Garvin Stevens, president of Williston State College from 1967 to 2000; Kermit Lidstrom, Bis-marck State College, 1977-95; Al Watrel, Dickinson State University, 1977-94; and Sharon Etemad, Lake Region State College, 1987-2008.

The letter states that none of the current presidents has created trouble for himself or his institution, and that there’s “no need to punish good leaders for the sins of their predecessors.

“We expect that North Dakota will soon lose the services of these talented, dedicated men,” it states.

Ozbun said he didn’t personally receive any input from sitting presidents in crafting the letter, and he hasn’t consulted them about whether they’re planning on leaving.

“But on the other hand, I think the situation is such that if I was in their shoes, I would be looking for other opportunities because the situation hasn’t been very pleasant for them,” he said.

The letter states the situation “is so out of hand that what is arguably the best state higher education governance structure in the country (and certainly the one most used in other states) may be replaced with a bureaucracy or a political machine. The outcome could jeopardize all the institutions’ regional accreditation, which has happened twice before under Shirvani’s leadership.

“All sides are entrenched in their current positions. This will only get worse unless someone steps forward with principle and courage to put the students, the institutions, and the future of the state first – very soon. We hope that will be you, individually and collectively.”

The former presidents recommend the board fire Shirvani “for cause or by negotiation” and then find a new chancellor, “noting that truly effective change agents are also trusting and trustworthy. We also believe that if the board pursues a proactive plan to improve its own governance of the system, such a chancellor can be found.”

Board member Don Morton said he didn’t have an issue with the letter, saying it was “all part of the dialogue,” while Vice President Kirsten Diederich said the former campus leaders have “a lot of insight and experience” on these issues.

“It’s been a while probably since they’ve been sitting in the seats here, kind of in the trenches,” she said. “Not to say that what they had to say is not relevant now, but it’s something we should actually look into.”

Chaffee, now a consultant for the national Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, noted that most of the board members are relatively new to the system and “simply haven’t had the opportunity to govern together.” She said experienced campus leaders can help teach them about their institutions, but only if they’re allowed to openly communicate with the board.

“How does the board govern if they not only don’t know the institutions but they don’t know the presidents?” she said.


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Forum reporter Ryan Johnson contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

Former presidents' letter