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GERALD COMBS JR.: Editorial targets Shirvani for telling truth

GRAND FORKS -- The Herald and Forum Communications' April 28 editorial brought to mind something Plutarch wrote two millennia ago ("Time for Chancellor Shirvani to resign," Page C3).

GRAND FORKS -- The Herald and Forum Communications' April 28 editorial brought to mind something Plutarch wrote two millennia ago ("Time for Chancellor Shirvani to resign," Page C3).

In writing of the Roman conquest of Armenia, Plutarch told the story of local ruler who had a messenger decapitated for delivering the bad news that the Roman army was approaching. As the ensuing battle proceeded around him, that king took no action, listening only to those who flattered him.

Forum Communications' management showed the impulses of that king in the editorial calling for the resignation of Hamid Shirvani as chancellor of the North Dakota University System. That was shooting the messenger.

Shooting the messenger is a form of the ad hominem logical fallacy: arguing against the person instead of that person's argument. It distracts from the actual problem and trades a better future for a cozy present.

I have seen it employed here by individuals threatened by the efforts of progressive deans and chancellors -- in every case, accomplished professionals recruited from elsewhere.


I found the editorial's argument lacking in substance. Instead, it relied on stylistic considerations, which it captured in claiming Shirvani is trying to "move too far and too fast."

In what progressive environment could such an effort be seen as a fault?

How can the Herald and Forum Communications stand by and allow a leader to be wantonly attacked for pointing out the abysmal graduation rates of our universities? How can the media organizations let others reframe the problem in self-serving ways?

Do you really expect North Dakota students, parents and taxpayers to be proud of four-year graduation rates of under 25 percent?

If the Herald and Forum Communications feel professionally competent to critique academic administration, then why has it not pointed out that UND and North Dakota State University students take almost 50 percent longer to have the same chance of graduating as the national average?

Why have editorials not noted this as a waste of both student and taxpayer dollars and a driver of the high debts -- among the highest in the nation -- with which students graduate? Why has the company not seen this as an embarrassment to the state -- one that should have been addressed before now?

American colleges and universities compete in a nationwide market for both students and faculty. They do so largely on the basis of the quality of their faculty and their ability to produce well-prepared graduates.

How institutions in North Dakota fare in that competition has dramatic local social and economic impacts. For these reasons, it is imperative to bring the state's academic enterprises into modern times and to do so with urgency.


This agenda calls for experienced, committed and courageous leaders of vision and vigor. To label their efforts as "too far, too fast" is to support an unremarkable status quo in which people and institutions have been comfortable -- even protected -- by accepting their conditions as "good enough."

Forum Communications and the Herald serve no one by perpetuating a Panglossian view of these institutions and by failing to address the strong tide of mediocrity against which those who strive for excellence must paddle.

Instead, editorials should celebrate those willing to navigate such waters and, in so doing, to challenge each of us to pursue excellence.

Hamid Shirvani is such a leader. North Dakota was wise to recruit him and is fortunate to have him as chancellor. His approach to making the state's array of colleges and universities into an effective and functioning system is reasonable and straightforward.

As he has pointed out, the needs are clear, and the necessary strategies are not new. It should be self-evident that the fixes require change.

Accomplishing those changes will be good for everyone and, as many have noted, that is precisely what Shirvani was hired to do.

Shirvani's message needs to be heard. This calls for solid reporting of the facts, painful and challenging as they may be. The Herald and Forum Communications have failed in this regard.

Sophocles observed that "no one loves the messenger that brings bad news." But experience shows that progress depends on heeding such messages and that, ultimately, no one benefits from shooting the messenger.


Combs is professor emeritus of nutrition at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He is an adjunct professor at UND's School of Medicine and Health Sciences and at the School of Food Systems at North Dakota State University.

Combs is also Director of the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. The opinions expressed here are his own and are not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or its affiliates.

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