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Ryan Johnson, Published March 21 2013

ND Higher Ed Board votes 5-3 to back Chancellor Shirvani

BISMARCK – The State Board of Higher Education on Thursday passed a resolution of “full support” for Chancellor Hamid Shirvani.

But three members of the eight-person board voted against the resolution during a special conference call, and several said there needs to be more discussion to address underlying communication issues that plague the board.

Grant Shaft, who authored the resolution, said it was important for the board to pass the resolution in the wake of recent allegations against Shirvani and accusations the board has not followed proper policies.

Board members held another conference call March 14 to discuss a report by University System General Counsel Claire Holloway that found “no substantive evidence of willful wrongdoing” by Shirvani.

That inquiry was launched March 7 when student representative Sydney Hull raised allegations that Shirvani instructed University System staff to disobey open meeting laws and raised allegations of other offenses.

Shaft’s resolution outlines the board’s directions to Shirvani when he was hired and highlights examples of Shirvani’s efforts since July, including the introduction of his “Pathways to Student Success” plan that seeks to boost academic outcomes.

“Be it therefore resolved that the SBHE endorses and gives its full support to the Chancellor for his dedication and perseverance in endeavoring to improve the quality of public higher education in North Dakota,” the resolution reads. It added the board “remains supportive of the Chancellor’s efforts” and believes the changes introduced by Shirvani will “measurably improve the quality” of graduates.

Hull, who voted against the resolution, said it was being pushed through too quickly because board members didn’t get the final draft until shortly before the call began.

“If we’re going to pass a resolution we’ve got an hour and a half before the meeting, without people even reading it before the meeting, I think that’s a little ridiculous,” Hull said.

Kari Reichert said she had a problem voting for a resolution of “unqualified support.” She said if she voted “no” it would be because she thought the idea was overly simple and not necessarily because of a lack of support for the chancellor.

Shaft said his resolution leaves the door open to future discussions. It ends with a paragraph stating the board “considers communication to be the key to effective governance” and needs to improve communication.

“I don’t want to leave this meeting without the board indicating that we support the chancellor right now and support the board policies,” he said.

President Duaine Espegard called for a vote, effectively ending discussion on the resolution, and said members needed to vote whether or not they supported the board’s policies and the chancellor.

The resolution passed 5-3, with Hull, Terry Hjelmstad and Reichert voting “no.” Kirsten Diederich, Don Morton and Kathleen Neset joined Espegard and Shaft in voting “yes.”

After the vote, Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, told the board what he thinks caused this “toxic environment” – rumors early into Shirvani’s tenure that he planned to fire several campus presidents, and poor leadership in the months since.

Grindberg introduced an amendment that would provide the board with funding to buy out Shirvani’s remaining contract, a plan that passed the Senate and is now in the House.

Shaft denied the rumor about Shirvani planning to fire presidents, pointing out only the board has the authority to hire and fire presidents. Espegard denied the claim when directly asked by Grindberg during a legislative hearing at the start of the session.

But Reichert said whether or not it’s true, the perception persists and points to a larger problem. After the meeting, she said Thursday’s resolution faces a “question of legitimacy” until the board can address the issues and have real dialogue with its constituents.

“As long as we remain embroiled in this controversy, we’re not going to get past it,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587