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Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Once again, like seems to happen every couple months, there is more turmoil in North Dakota's University System.  Senator Tony Grindberg (R-Fargo) has introduced an amendment to the University System’s budget that would allocate $600,000 for the purpose of buying-out University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani's contract.  

It has been less than a year since Shirvani was hired to replace Bill Goetz by the Board of Higher Education.

It was not widely reported, but it was well known that Shirvani had issues in California getting along with his underlings.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education in July 2012:

Mr. Shirvani comes to North Dakota with his own controversial past. In 2009, the faculty of the Stanislaus campus voted "no confidence" in his leadership after he wrote an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education that criticized colleges' "country-club-quality recreational facilities and multitudes of majors and minors," as well as their rankings-driven obsession with status.

The dust-up led to a special visit by the university's regional accreditor to deal with the rift between the faculty and the president, and the creation of a special campus committee that is still working to repair the relationship between instructors and administrators, said Mark A. Grobner, speaker of the Academic Senate at the Stanislaus campus.

Mr. Shirvani said he learned a lot from that controversy, especially about the need to communicate more openly with faculty members.

"The best lesson is to ... take a little more time and listen to as many people as possible," he said. "But the truth of the matter is that, as a leader, one has to make the right decision, not the popular decision," he said.

One has to wonder how much that sort of baggage was weighed into the decision to hire Shirvani, but the trouble with Higher Education in North Dakota is not all because of the newest guy in town.  It is because the system is broken, the Board of Higher Education views itself as a rogue 4th branch of state government, and it is up to the legislature to reassert its authority over the the system.

For the last decade, the University System has been a revolving door of characters that are put in charge of education, but seem to be more worried about building empires for themselves, and starting wars with their superiors   All the while ignoring the fact that it is the people of North Dakota that pay their salaries, and the legislature that is and should be in change of the system.  

When NDSU President Joe Chapman chased then Chancellor Robert Potts out of the state, nothing was done to fix the problems that led to the situation.

When Chapman himself was later chased out of the state for abusing his authority with regard to building the new NDSU President's mansion, nothing was done to stop that from happening again.

When DSU President  Richard McCallum was chased out of the state for turning DSU into a diploma mill and imposing a culture of fear on campus, reports from that campus say very little has been done to change that culture.

And when NDSU President Dean Bresciani led the effort to increase NDSU's tuition by 9% within a month of Chancellor Bill Goetz promising the legislature tuition would not increase by more than 2.5% on any campus, nothing was done to prevent a repeat.

The current controversy involves a disagreement between Chancellor Shirvani and UND President Robert Kelly, when Kelly refused to approve changes to building plans for a building on UND's campus.

Many of these situations have been over pretty disagreements, however, one thing is clear - it's time to clean house, from the top to the bottom, when it comes to North Dakota's University System.

The Board of Higher Education does not respect that the legislature is the final say over higher education issues (mostly because the legislature has abdicated that role).

Time and again, campus presidents have showed they don't have any respect for the authority that anyone serving as Chancellor has - bringing into question whether the Chancellor, no matter who it is, really matters.

Meanwhile, the students and their taxpaying parents, get kicked around like a political football, with tuition costs skyrocketing as quickly as taxpayer funding increases, if not faster.

None of this is new of course, since the beginning people have known the University System was becoming an over-built, over-grown, bloated bureaucracy that was uncontrollable.

On page 496 of  Elwyn Robinson's History of North Dakota,  Robinson writes:

"In 1933 the legislature cut the appropriations for all institutions of higher education for the biennium to $1.6 million (they were $4 million in 1931)… the depression convinced many people in North Dakota it had more colleges than it could support.  In 1933 the legislature ordered the Board of Administration to eliminate all unnecessary duplication of courses"; in 1935 it called for "a thorough study of the feasibility of either consolidation or closing of some of these institutions."  In 1936 the Tax Survey Commission found fault with the colleges' tendency to expand their program and pointed out that North Dakota had more state-supported colleges than thirty-three other states. It concluded, however, that duplication was like the weather: everybody talked about it, nobody did anything."

The problems in higher ed will not go away, and spending $600,000 to chase another Chancellor out of the state will not solve the problem.

Until the legislature admits the University System is broken, it will continue to operate in a way that is not acceptable for the amount of taxpayer and student tuition dollars it is taking in. 

It's time for the legislature to realize it has to make the fix, or be responsible for all of these situations due to inaction.


Dustin Gawrylow is Managing Director for ND Watchdog Network.

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