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N.D. higher ed board to review 'disturbing' allegations against chancellor

BISMARCK -- The State Board of Higher Education will likely meet in May to discuss "disturbing information and allegations" about embattled Chancellor Hamid Shirvani.

Hamid Shirvani
Hamid Shirvani, chancellor of the North Dakota University System. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

BISMARCK -- The State Board of Higher Education will likely meet in May to discuss "disturbing information and allegations" about embattled Chancellor Hamid Shirvani.

The information includes alleged violations of the state's open meeting and open records laws, and possible violations of State Board of Higher Education policy.

The issue came up at the end of Thursday's board meeting. After presenting a packet of copies of emails and other documents he said apparently show the violations, student representative Sydney Hull said the board needs to take action.

"I believe right now we have an environment of misinformation and distrust amongst our constituencies, and that is the presidents, the administrations, the students, the staff and the Legislature," Hull said. "I believe there is a large disconnect we have to fix if we are to come together and have a unified system."

Hull said the documents suggest "consistent problems" with open meeting and records laws, adding the board's executive committee poses a "large problem" to these laws.


He said the board also suffers from "poor communication," pushes through major policy changes too quickly without consultation and has a frail relationship with lawmakers.

The evidence Hull presented includes printouts of Shirvani's online calendar showing an Oct. 29 appointment for a conference call with the board's executive committee, though that meeting had no announced notice, agenda or minutes.

Also, a Jan. 12, 2012, letter shows Shirvani claiming to a top consultant leading the search for North Dakota's new chancellor that he secured $18.5 million in state funding while serving as president of California State University Stanislaus. The money was for renovating a science classroom building.

Shirvani's predecessor at that school, Marvalene Hughes, had a letter printed in The Modesto Bee this week saying the claim was false, and said she's the one who got the money.

Hull stopped short of supporting an amendment offered by Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, and recently approved by the Senate that would provide funding to the board to buy out the remainder of Shirvani's three-year contract if it wished.

In his report to the board, North Dakota Student Association President William Woodworth focused on the group's meeting last month approving two resolutions -- one supporting Grindberg's amendment and the other expressing "no confidence" in Shirvani.

"It is clear that the State Board of Higher Education needs to take time to discuss this issue," Woodworth said.

Hull said he didn't want to bring up the amendment to buy out Shirvani's contract because it still needs approval from the House. While the Legislature controls appropriations, only the board has the constitutional authority to dismiss Shirvani.


Hull said the new allegations merit discussion right now to see if Shirvani should remain in the position he's held since July 1.

"I think the next coming months will be indicative of whether or not we can work with him," Hull said. "I also have to express the students' viewpoint that they want the chancellor gone."

He asked the board to discuss the allegations at its April meeting, giving members a chance to look over the evidence and not come to a "kneejerk reaction" while also ensuring Shirvani would have a chance to respond.

The chancellor didn't comment during Hull's remarks or after the meeting.

Board President Duaine Espegard said the board will look into the allegations, and thanked Hull for bringing the information to the meeting. He said the meeting will likely have to wait until May.

"I want it vetted out very thoroughly, but we will address every one of these in a meeting," he said.

Espegard said a date will be set later, and said he wasn't sure yet if the topic would come up at the next regularly scheduled board meeting May 9 at the University of North Dakota or at a separate meeting.

Hull's request concluded a busy day for the board.


Members received a new performance report by state Auditor Bob Peterson that found the University System's central office is understaffed -- backing up requests by Shirvani and Espegard for funding to hire more employees.

Kirsten Franzen, the system's chief compliance officer, updated the board on two central office employees' concerns about the morale in the Bismarck office that were brought to Hull.

She said after talking with the employees, she found their concerns generally are "very overstated" and seemed based on rumor and fear of rapid changes happening in the system.

"While both reiterated their concerns about job security, neither indicated specific reasons for this concern," Franzen said.

Still, Franzen said the investigation pointed out improvements that should be made, including better feedback to employees about their job performance. Espegard suggested employees take an exit interview if they leave their job, which could point out other issues.

The board also voted to take formal stances opposing four bills now in the Legislature that, if approved by both chambers and supported by a majority of voters in 2014, would amend the state's constitution to overhaul the higher education governance that's been in place since 1938.

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