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Kyle Potter, Published August 15 2013

ANALYSIS: Questions, answers about ongoing saga of higher ed emails

BISMARCK – Trying to make sense of another story involving emails and the North Dakota University System?

Here are answers to some questions casual observers might have about the continuing story.

Why do I keep reading about University System emails?

On behalf of unnamed legislators, the Legislative Council keeps requesting emails from the presidents at North Dakota’s 11 public colleges and universities.

Most recently, it submitted a mammoth request last month for more than 100,000 emails that the University System expects will take hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to fulfill. It’s fairly clear the requester doesn’t feel they are getting the correspondence they’ve sought in earlier requests.

But the discussion of the emails – what they are, who is asking to see them and how and why some were deleted – isn’t just technical talk.

It’s an extension of an ongoing battle for control of North Dakota higher education between university presidents and advocates of more centralized control.

Why is a legislator involved in this?

Much of the fight over the fate of former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani, who was hired to take greater control of the state’s universities and colleges, was hashed out in Bismarck, where Shirvani had both fierce allies and harsh opponents.

The search terms from the Legislative Council’s initial request – looking for mentions of Shirvani plus emails from some of his known foes – suggest the person behind the request was among those in the Legislature who felt Shirvani was wrongly targeted and ousted.

Rep. Bob Skarphol, a Tioga Republican and vocal Shirvani supporter, told The Forum on Thursday that he was behind a number of requests, but he declined to discuss specific requests.

There were also plenty of lawmakers at the Capitol who wanted Shirvani out.

Rep. Kathy Hawken, a Fargo Republican, urged State Board of Higher Education member Kirsten Diederich in an email not to “sit back” after a former Valley City State University president alleged that Shirvani’s governance practices could cost the University System its accreditation.

Diederich wrote that several Shirvani loyalists in the Legislature, including Skarphol, believed she had tried to discredit the chancellor.

“The Chancellor doesn’t need any help,” Hawken responded. “He does just fine discrediting himself.”

Why does any of this matter?

After months of turmoil, the State Board of Higher Education in early June voted to buy out the remainder of Shirvani’s contract for nearly $1 million in taxpayer money. That move, the board and several university presidents said, would bring the bad blood between the universities and its parent system to an end.

It hasn’t.

“The way everything shook out, there was a lot of hard feelings on both sides, from the university presidents to the chancellor to the Legislature,” said Rep. Mark Dosch, a Bismarck Republican and Shirvani supporter.

That’s at least in part because the power struggle pre-dates Shirvani or any individual university president. After a long line of unsuccessful attempts, the board hired Shirvani last summer to take charge of North Dakota’s 11 public colleges and universities. He lasted less than a year.

“Shirvani insisted and SBHE officers agreed Shirvani would have full authority to clean house in the system office and decide which presidents were acceptable to him and which presidents should be removed,” Pat Seaworth, the board’s former top attorney, wrote in a February email to each university president.

Like most of the 10 North Dakota university presidents, North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani was publicly quiet about his thoughts on the chancellor. But in private emails, he expressed disdain for Shirvani and his staff.

Did other university presidents criticize Shirvani?

Yes. In an email outlining his issues with planned policy changes sent to Shirvani in September, Minot State University President David Fuller expressed his concern that he and other presidents would be “relegated to operational managers, not leaders.”

“This new chancellor has reeked (sp) havoc on our system and our campuses,” Fuller wrote in a different email sent through his personal account and obtained through an open records request. “People in the system office are in turmoil and fear for their jobs.”

“This all sucks. Toxic environment,” Bismarck State College President Larry Skogen wrote in a personal email in March to Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck.

Skogen has now taken over Shirvani’s responsibilities as acting head of the system. He is in the running to stay in the job as interim chancellor until North Dakota voters decide whether the State Board of Higher Education should be abolished in the 2014 election.

Presidents criticizing the chancellor – is that what these requests are looking for?

Maybe.

Skarphol said he’s not the only legislator who has made a request through the Legislative Council and declined to discuss what may be in emails “until there is more evidence.”

“What’s feared is that there could be something publicly embarrassing to more than just the president of NDSU,” Skarphol said.

So where do the deleted emails come in?

After an April request for Bresciani’s emails turned up fewer emails than anticipated, the Legislative Council raised concerns that many of the NDSU president’s messages had been erased.

The school and the parent University System eventually confirmed that tens of thousands of the president’s emails were deleted sometime in the two weeks leading up to that request. The attorney general’s office is looking into whether that deletion violated North Dakota’s open records laws.

How many emails were deleted?

Either 43,604 or 45,375, based upon two different reports of what had been dumped from the president’s account.

Officials from the University System have told the attorney general that the 1,771 difference between the “snapshots” may be explained by other files, like calendar events, not being counted in the lower total.

How were they deleted?

In the days after the deleted emails came to light, school and system officials have said all signs point to a new automatic purge function being to blame. Starting sometime in either March or April, any email in the trash bin of an NDSU account that was more than a month old was automatically dumped.

One of the “snapshots” of Bresciani’s account showed 40,000-plus emails in a recovery folder, where auto-purged emails are kept for an extra 14 days. All of those emails were at least 30 days old, which the school uses as evidence that the emails were inadvertently deleted.

Still, that feature violates the school’s own policies meant to keep public records. Per NDSU’s record retention policies – which it’s mandated by the state to have in order to keep documents – all of the president’s correspondence is supposed to be kept for at least a year past the current fiscal year.

Microsoft controls the school’s email system, so why can’t they just figure all this stuff out?

Microsoft requires a subpoena to turn over any information, including to its own clients. In an email obtained through a recent open records request, NDSU interim chief information officer Marc Wallman toyed with the idea of issuing a subpoena, but eventually decided against it.

Microsoft has declined to comment to the Forum on the issue, citing the company’s privacy policies.

Are there more emails out there?

Maybe.

In a July 1 email obtained by The Forum, NDSU general counsel Christopher Wilson mentions that a University System employee reportedly had 6,600 emails that should have been turned over to the Legislative Council.

When asked whether there were 6,600 additional emails somewhere, University System spokeswoman Linda Donlin said that number came from a technical error. For a time, the system employee was only looking at 6,000-some unread emails rather than the 40,000-plus in total, Donlin said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502