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Ryan Johnson, Published April 03 2013

Complaint seeks investigation of Shirvani, Higher Ed Board by accreditation agency

CHICAGO – Former Valley City State University president Ellen Chaffee is requesting an investigation and possible sanctions over “grave” concerns about the leadership of North Dakota’s State Board of Higher Education and Chancellor Hamid Shirvani.

Chaffee sent a 48-page complaint Wednesday to Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits each of North Dakota’s 11 public campuses.

The document, which she said she discussed with several people before sending, doesn’t raise new allegations. Chaffee said it collected the various accusations that have come up in recent months to show the “deteriorating” governance of the North Dakota University System since Shirvani took office July 1.

“He is not responding in ways that are constructive and in ways that North Dakotans can appreciate and in ways that will help achieve the best results for students in the state,” she told The Forum.

Chaffee has publicly criticized Shirvani before, signing on to a March 14 letter, along with five other former campus presidents in the state, that said he was “wrong for North Dakota” and called on the board to fire him.

Her formal complaint said questions of effective higher education governance came up before Shirvani became chancellor, including the board’s work regarding the University of North Dakota’s former Fighting Sioux athletic nickname, but things have “only worsened” since July.

She wrote that four of the board’s eight voting members have less than one year of service, and newer members “appear to have had minimal orientation” to campuses or their duties.

Chaffee also said several policy changes, such as fewer board meetings on campuses and the elimination of the board’s on-campus social events, have effectively ended direct communication with institutions and presidents.

“The board’s sole source of direct information has become the system chancellor,” she wrote.

Chaffee told The Forum that the accrediting commission could ignore her letter. But she said she believes it’s more likely that representatives will be sent to conduct interviews and write a report, which could include sanctions or new guidelines.

University System spokeswoman Linda Donlin said in a written statement that Chaffee’s complaints “appear to be based on rumors and misinformation” about the board and Shirvani.

“Nonetheless, we have every intention to respond to the Higher Learning Commission if and when it chooses to follow up on any portion of Dr. Chaffee’s complaint,” she wrote.

Chaffee admitted her request is a risky move because calling for the attention of an accrediting body could end up jeopardizing the very accreditation that she’s trying to protect.

“Believe me, I do not take this lightly,” she said. “If I were not gravely concerned, I never would have done this, and if I did not believe it would be helpful, I would not have done it.”

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