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Mike Nowatzki and Ryan Johnson, Published June 03 2013

Shirvani's exit divisive but not surprising

FARGO – One lawmaker lamented the buyout of embattled North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani’s contract because she thinks he should have just been fired.

Another thought it was a shame because he thinks it ensures the head of the state’s public colleges and universities will be “a puppet of sorts.”

The range of reactions to Monday’s buyout was as divisive as Shirvani’s time in North Dakota, though no one could say it was truly a surprise.

Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, said she believes the state Board of Higher Education had cause “16 ways to China” to fire Shirvani without paying out the remaining two years of his three-year contract.

Hawken said Shirvani was “less than factual” and “misleading” when testifying before legislative committees, violated the state’s open meeting laws and created a hostile work environment that led to a high rate of turnover in the university system office.

“They didn’t need to pay him a dime,” Hawken said. “He violated his contract.”

Shirvani’s most outspoken supporter in the Legislature this past session, Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, said he was “very disappointed” by the board’s decision on Monday, but not surprised by it.

“When I take a look at the membership there, I’m not surprised at all,” he said. “Typically on boards you have people who have ran businesses or know at least the ins and outs of doing so, and in this case, we have board members who have never signed anything but the back of a paycheck.”

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, in a two-sentence statement, said the issues surrounding Shirvani’s management had become “a significant distraction.”

“It is good that they will be able to move forward in the board office and get back to the work of improving the quality of education at our colleges and universities,” Dalrymple said.

‘Very difficult’ year

Minot State University President David Fuller, the longest-serving president in the North Dakota University System and the most outspoken when it came to concerns about communication problems under Shirvani’s leadership, said there were a lot of rumors circulating and the board’s action “doesn’t come as a great surprise to us.”

Fuller said it’s been a “very difficult and contentious year,” and he’s looking forward to “getting back to a shared sense of governance in the system.” He said he’s felt for some time that communication between the campuses and system office – and between the campuses themselves – was “very limited, and that’s really opposite from what my experience has been for my nine years in this system.”

“We’ve lost that sense of camaraderie and trust and collaboration,” he said.

University of North Dakota President Robert Kelley was on vacation and not easily reachable Monday, but he was informed of the contract buyout Monday morning and had no comment on it other than to say the university is focused on moving forward, UND spokesman Peter Johnson said.

North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani was engaged in an alumni association event and unavailable for comment, NDSU spokeswoman Anne Robinson-Paul said.

Former Valley City State University president Ellen Chaffee, who filed a complaint about the board’s and Shirvani’s leadership with the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits the state’s institutions, also declined to comment Monday.

Chaffee, who joined five other former presidents in calling on the board to fire Shirvani in March, cautioned in an interview then that the system’s current path could prompt sitting presidents to seek employment elsewhere, warning of a “real potential for a presidential exodus.”

Who’ll want job now?

Shirvani will be the second chancellor to leave the system on bad terms within the past seven years.

Former Chancellor Robert Potts lost the board’s support and resigned in 2006, accusing former NDSU President Joseph Chapman of trying to undermine the system’s effectiveness and his role as chancellor. Bill Goetz served as chancellor for five years before retiring last August and handing the reins to Shirvani, who started July 1.

Skarphol said Monday’s development will make it difficult to try to find a replacement for Shirvani. He said he’d guess no one from out of state would even consider applying.

He said it shows the Legislature also failed to enact safeguards to keep the board stocked with members “of sufficient knowledge to know what it takes to make the difficult decisions.” But he said he most feared what kind of CEO the system can get after Shirvani’s departure.

“We won’t have a leader; we’ll have a puppet of sorts, much like we’ve had in the past with the exception of Dr. Potts and Dr. Shirvani,” he said. “We’ll have someone who merely goes along and doesn’t propose change.”

Fuller said media coverage surrounding Shirvani has been “very, very caustic,” but he said reasonable people interested in the job will do their homework and “see that we’ve really got a great state here and we’ve got a great system.”

“I think for some it might cause some pause,” he said. “For others, they’ll see this as an opportunity, and I’m an optimist when it comes to that.”

‘Didn’t fit well’

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, echoed the notion oft-cited Monday that the end of Shirvani’s tenure was expected. He noted that the board March 21 just narrowly passed, 5-3, a resolution to support the chancellor.

“On his behalf, he had some pretty good ideas,” Carlson said. “He just had a very unusual and aggressive management style that didn’t fit well with some people, and I think that because of that there was a lot of problems with relations between he and the presidents.”

North Dakota Student Association President Jennifer Vetter said the organization, which represents the more than 48,000 students of the North Dakota University System, has expressed strong concerns over Shirvani’s leadership this year.

The NDSA passed a resolution in February in support of a failed amendment offered by Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, to offer more than $800,000 to buy out the remainder of Shirvani’s three-year contract, and also passed a vote of “no confidence” in the chancellor.

Vetter said the NDSA sees the contract buyout as a “positive step.”

“Moving forward, we hope that students’ voices will be not only heard, but listened to in matters of system governance,” she said in an email statement.

Concerns answered

Grindberg said he would let the actions of the board “speak for themselves” when asked to comment on news of Shirvani’s upcoming departure.

“Obviously there were a number of us that had concerns, and those concerns that were conveyed across the state were probably answered today,” he said Monday.

Despite her misgivings about the buyout, Hawken said she too is glad the issue is being resolved so the state can move forward.

“I think it’s the only thing we can do if we want to save our system,” she said.

Skarphol said there were several “big losers” in Monday’s decision – the university system that won’t be improved, the taxpayers who won’t have control over campus costs, parents of the students and the 11 communities with a public campus that will stop improving. But he said there was one “positive” thing in Monday’s news.

“Dr. Shirvani will no longer have to take the type of beating that’s unfair, and inappropriate, and I can’t think of enough adjectives to condemn how he’s been treated,” he said. “But it’s people in the state of North Dakota that have perpetrated this fraud.”