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Matthew S. Worner, Published March 23 2013

Letter: Only way to reboot higher ed

North Dakota Higher Education Chancellor Hamid Shirvani and members of the state Board of Higher Education should resign. A housecleaning is needed.

How, in good conscience, can the chancellor direct that university presidents can only talk to him, and that communicating with their legislators is grounds for termination? Yet, that’s what the chancellor proposed. Higher education should not be a military organization. Higher education requires that ideas and collaborations are shared with colleagues, with legislative staffs, with cities where the colleges are located, etc. A “my way or the highway” approach is not in sync with the culture of North Dakota.

He is to blame

Micromanagement in higher education has not worked in any state in the country. Legislators should end this fiasco now – pay the chancellor’s contract buyout and wish him well.

People always want to blame the top guy in an organization – and plenty of blame should go to Shirvani. But how could the board authorize a policy in which university presidents can be removed by the chancellor after 30 days’ notice without cause? That seems to be the policy that was passed last fall in the North Dakota University System Governance and Organization Policy (Section 305.1 College and University Presidents’ Authority and Responsibilities). They enable the chancellor’s “my way or the highway.” Did the board think about the consequences of the policy?

‘Deion Sanders contract’

In other words, how hard is it going to be to recruit talented university presidents when with 30 days’ notice, you can be fired without cause? The irony is that this policy will be more expensive for North Dakota taxpayers. For example, if I’m a talented university president and I decide that I want to work in North Dakota, I will ask for my contract to be front-loaded. More specifically, I will ask for three years’ salary and all associated expenses (e.g. housing expenses, car expenses, moving expenses) – to be paid in advance before I even set foot in North Dakota.

I call these “Deion Sanders contracts” (former Washington Redskins defensive back), in which individuals get a signing bonus that they don’t have to return. (And Sanders, for what it’s worth, got

$8 million out of Danny Snyder, the Redskins owner.) The board, however, probably never realized this – and this is massive negligence on their part. Every individual on the board should resign now.

The governor and lawmakers are not without fault. The governor needs to suggest that the chancellor tender his resignation, and set the stage for a contract buyout with the Legislature. The governor also needs to ask for the resignations of all board members, if they do not resign themselves. The governor needs to appoint new members to the board with experience in higher education – who have knowledge of the system. Certainly, not all members need to have knowledge of the system, but the governor needs to appoint some who do.

Get right people

The Legislature has allowed this fiasco to happen, and they need to set the stage with the governor to ensure that resignations (including any contract buyouts) from the chancellor and the board take place by June 30 – at the end of the 2012-13 academic year. I’m not an advocate of eliminating the board – effective governance can happen through the board – if the right people are on the board.

I’m proud to be a graduate of the North Dakota University System, one of the best in the land. However, when the board and the chancellor cannot perform their responsibilities and can no longer govern, it is their ethical duty to resign. North Dakota taxpayers deserve effective governance, and ethical resignations are the only way for it to happen.

Worner, a native of Mayville, N.D., and Devils Lake, N.D., holds degrees from Mayville State University, Virginia Tech and Georgetown University.