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Shirvani’s gone. Now what?

By Staff | Jun 28, 2013

The embattled former chancellor of North Dakota’s higher education system’s year from hell is over, and it seems like he’s burned some bridges.

In the timespan between Thursday, June 20 and Friday, June 21 (which was when this column was written), Hamid Shirvani was placed on administrative leave, as decided by the State Board of Higher Education at a meeting in Bottineau. Bismarck State College president Larry Skogen was appointed acting interim chancellor, and he will serve a 60-day term until a new interim chancellor can be appointed to serve for 2 years. Skogen started his job on Monday of this week.

This was after Shirvani wrote some less-than-glowing performance reviews, on Monday of last week, about North Dakota college and university presidents. The reviews for Dean Bresciani (president, NDSU), Robert Kelley (president, UND) and David Fuller (president, Minot State) were especially scathing. The section marked “Overall” in each of the reviews were what drew ire.

Shirvani said that Fuller, who was, of all the university and college presidents, the most vocal, open opponent of elements of the Pathways to Student Success Plan, had a “myopic” (short-sighted, narrow-minded, uncreative) leadership style and a “clear lack of respect” for other institutions. He also recommended that Fuller’s salary not be increased, even though Fuller is retiring in 2014. At the meeting in Bottineau, Fuller demanded an apology and a purge of the review from his record, stating that they were illegally posted on “a blog” before he even had a chance to see and sign his. (Fuller was on vacation and came back early, according to a Minot Daily News article. However, both Say Anything Blog and the Fargo Forum filed open records requests for the evaluations when they were ready to be released.)

Of Bresciani, Shirvani said that he doesn’t have a clear vision for NDSU and that he doesn’t seem to understand the very notion of “peer review”. He also recommended a full, 360 review from an independent group in the fall, a one-year contract extension pending the results of said review, and a 3% salary increase.

Of Kelley, Shirvani said that he was unnerved by Kelley’s silence on the infamous Pathways plan, saying it’s a “telltale sign of your lack of support”. Shirvani also recommended a full, 360 review, a one-year contract extension, and a 0% salary increase.

The supporters of each of the three negatively-reviewed presidents allege that Shirvani really should’ve looked at the good that the presidents’ leadership has done for the campuses and the students.

The board has since approved a motion that rejected Shirvani’s reviews, apologized for any personal and professional damage due to “repugnant, offensive and unprofessional” language, and authorized Skogen to do performance reviews.

At a previously held meeting, the Board approved an approximately $1 million buyout of the remainder of Shirvani’s three-year contract.

The North Dakota Student Association, as well as quite a few student and staff senates, put in votes of “no confidence” in Shirvani’s leadership.

Shirvani and the board have also been at the center of controversy, due to allegations of breaking open meetings laws and fraudulent handling of data (including comparisons of graduation and retention rates).

Shirvani said in a segment on Valley News Live that he has been subjected to personal and professional attacks from various quarters, and he has been the target of racial slurs.

When the buyout was originally approved, Shirvani was supposed to be at his post until July, and he would be around until January on a consulting basis. Included in the hefty sum was the remainder of his three-year contract, as well as benefits. And this is at the expense of students (possibly in the form of tuition raises) and YOU, the taxpayer, whether or not you have a kid in college in this state.

A lot of colleges, editorial boards, and others weren’t too happy about the Pathways plan, as you may recall. Changing admission standards so that bright students go a college where they can succeed, upping accountability standards, capping tuition waivers, raising graduation and retention rates all seem like good ideas. However those ideas were also accompanied by a tier system that would reinforce a notion that one school (which tries to distinguish itself and make it more inviting to students) is more inferior than another, and they were brought forth with a “my way or the highway” attitude rather than in a manner of mutual trust and cooperation.

So now what?

The board will have to seek an interim chancellor who will serve for two years. Whomever they appoint will have to work with the board and the colleges. Of course, that’s if there will be a board in two years. Come November 2014, North Dakota voters will be able to decide whether or not to replace the SBHE, as it stands now, with a three-member panel that serves at the pleasure of the Governor.

Shirvani supporters allege that now that he’s gone, the problems in the university system can’t be fixed. Yes, there were people who supported his vision for the university system, but if they didn’t expect something like this to happen here when it came down to the choice of hiring either Shirvani or Tim Flakoll as chancellor, why didn’t they even do a simple Google search? A simple Google search would’ve brought forth circumstances surrounding the “no confidence” vote against him at CSU-Stanislaus, complaints about his leadership style from past employees, an editorial he wrote that compares students wanting to go to college nowadays to greedy kids who want ice cream before chores are done, and why he had to resign from his post as Dean at the University of Colorado-Denver School of Architecture and Planning (hint, it has to do with adversarial relationships).

Either way, Skogen said this is a time for fixing the mess, for healing and re-fostering trust. And he couldn’t be more correct.

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