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Hamid Shirvani, Published May 13 2013

Letter: Change delayed assures higher education denied

It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the news that these past several months have been challenging for me and the members of the State Board of Higher Education. No sooner is one issue or rumor raised in the media, than another follows in short order, with still another waiting in the wings for “prime time.” And no sooner are the complaints answered than a second round begins, reintroducing what had been alleged in the first instance, assuming that if repeated enough, people will begin to believe it to be true.

Among the allegations made against me and/or the board is a baseless litany of misinformation – a new one seemed to mysteriously surface every week during the Legislative session – ranging from negative, downright racist comments about me, laced with harsh criticisms of my leadership style to false rumors about firing staff to exaggerated accusations about rushing policies or plans.

I understand the power of inertia when it comes to change. I also understand that pride in one’s culture can have a myopic effect on what is viewed as acceptable or not. What I cannot understand is how a state with so much promise and a people with so much potential can be comfortable telling future generations of North Dakotan that their education is “good enough” to meet the challenges of the global economy. It’s a Hobson’s Choice, which means we are choosing to keep the status quo, rather than choosing to do what is best for the students of tomorrow.

I don’t know where this level of confidence comes from, but I am certain it is not grounded in hard data, particularly in a state that avoids using national averages, IPEDS peers and aspirational peers, ignores “best practices” unless they are homegrown, and where, at the least sign of “oversight” from the system office, presidents scurry to their legislators to bring some form of “corrective” legislation.

Change is always unsettling. While some find it like a welcoming breeze, others fear it.

While I don’t expect to have the full support of all North Dakotans in all the areas that I have embarked on during my tenure as chancellor, I do hope there will be many areas of common ground upon which we can build a much stronger and higher quality system of public higher education.

To do this, however, requires trust, openness and civility – three components that I find particularly lacking in the public dialog thus far. Instead of addressing whether the NDUS should remain a loose federation of 11 semi-autonomous institutions, or a true university system with the system office exercising the power to bring order, consistency and oversight to its constituent institutions, my opponents have settled for the politics of personalism, which I find abhorrent to my values and to the purposes for which I was hired. Hopefully, North Dakotans will look beyond this form of politics as they seek to find a balance between much needed educational transformation and defending the status quo.

Shirvani is chancellor of the North Dakota University System.