BISMARCK, N.D. -- A Fargo lawmaker is proposing that the state buy out the contract of North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani just seven months after the former California State University, Stanislaus, president took the helm to oversee 11 public campuses.
Shirvani has exhibited erratic leadership, Tony Grindberg said in comments to The Forum and The Bismarck Tribune. Grindberg cited Shirvani's proposed overhaul of the higher-education system to tighten admission standards, a proposal to add 30 employees to the university system's payroll 23 more than recommended by the governor and a proposal to create an office for himself at the University of North Dakota campus in Grand Forks.
"In my opinion, Chancellor Shirvani's leadership style is in serious question and his methods of campus communication have created an environment of fear and retaliation," Grindberg, a Republican, said. "In my 20 years of legislative service, I have never experienced such strong widespread opinions of questionable leadership and mistrust."
Shirvani called the allegations "preposterous" and said he has no plans to step down. Duaine Espegard, president of the state Board of Higher Education, which has the power to hire and fire chancellors, said the board is "unequivocally and wholeheartedly in support of" Shirvani.
"Certain people don't want any changes and they're looking for every little thing they can and blow it out of proportion, trying to discredit me," Shirvani said.
Shirvani left CSU, Stanislaus, in June after serving as the campus president for seven years. During his tenure, the university went through high-profile ups and downs. The CSU system saw deep cuts, which led to layoffs, class reductions and furloughs. Shirvani and the faculty leadership often were at odds over everything from scheduling to hiring. In November 2009, the faculty overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence in Shirvani. That rift was noted in an accreditation report the university received the next year.
Buyout could cost $800K
Under his stewardship, the university added endowed chairs and held a fund-raising dinner featuring former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin that generated more than $200,000 for scholarships.
Shirvani's North Dakota contract runs from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2015. His annual salary is $349,000, so buying him out could cost more than $800,000. Grindberg is proposing to add money to the state's higher-education budget through an amendment to Senate Bill 2003.
"This is not a pleasant thing to be doing, but with the amount of support and comments I've been getting, the feeling and uncertainty is widespread," Grindberg said.
Reaction among lawmakers is mixed. Sen. Ron Carlisle, R-Bismarck, said he likely will support Grindberg's amendment, while Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, called it "irresponsible" and "a power play."
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said, "I don't think it is our job to say who the chancellor is. Our job is to work with him or her."
Grindberg's amendment would not force the Board of Higher Education to remove Shirvani; it only would provide the money for a buyout. Espegard said that would be unlikely.
"We're doing exactly what the Legislature and the people of North Dakota asked us to do, which is to move up the quality of higher education in North Dakota," he said. "We're not going to tolerate any tactics that take us back to the old model, and maybe some want the old model, but that's not the model we follow."
Shirvani said he was given a mandate to improve low graduation rates, student retention rates and other woes among the campuses. "The State Board of Higher Education hired me to build a real system, and I've taken my job very seriously," he said.
Bee reporter Marijke Rowland contributed to this report.