A Chill Wind Blows At The State Capitol For NDUS Chancellor Hamid Shirvani


I spent most of yesterday up at the capitol in Bismarck. I was the emcee for the annual “Converge on the Captiol” event (see a news report for that here), and then went inside to wander through some committee hearings and the legislative chambers for a while.

What had lawmakers buzzing was a higher education committee hearing in which top university system officials were called out for rumors of a house cleaning among university presidents.

Forum Communications reporter Ryan Johnson caught the exchange, but not the significance:

BISMARCK – Chancellor Hamid Shirvani made an early pitch to legislators Monday to justify why the University System should expand its staff by 30 workers instead of the seven new employees included in Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s budget proposal.

Now six months into the job, he was on hand during a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting to outline his agenda for boosting graduation and student retention rates, ratcheting up admission standards and achieving big improvements by 2020.

But Chairman Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said the hearing also was a chance to openly discuss “myths” of higher education here – including “buzz” that Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, said is focused on a rumored plan by Shirvani to unilaterally fire five campus presidents at the end of the legislative session.

Board of Higher Education President Duaine Espegard responded to the rumor, saying it was “so far from the truth that I can’t imagine” and that only the board, not Shirvani, has the authority to fire campus leaders.

“Let me say unequivocally here today there is no plan,” Espegard said. “There certainly isn’t a group of presidents that are going to be gone. And let me say this about that as well: we have excellent presidents.”

This was perhaps the first public manifestation of behind-the-scenes tension between the new chancellor and the university presidents. I’m told there is, in particular, a great deal of tension between Shirvani and NDSU President Dean Bresciani which many attribute to lingering resentment from the former for the latter’s vocal opposition to his hire last year.

It’s worth noting that Senator Grindberg is also a former employee of President Bresciani. Up until just last year, Grindberg was the head of NDSU’s Research and Technology Park where he was allowed to double-dip on his legislative salary and generally live pretty high on the hog. So to put this exchange in proper context, remember it was coming from a legislator in-the-bag for NDSU.

Rumors of a house-cleaning in the university system have been coming my way for some time, and last year I went so far as to make some requests for information about the potential fire of Bresciani, but it got nowhere. Clearly, legislators are hearing these same rumors.

And most of the angst among lawmakers, even among those who share my exasperation with the university system’s performance, seems to be for Shirvani. Time and again I heard the term “bad hire” used to describe Shirvani, and one official at the capitol went so far as to tell me that Shirvani might not be in his current job only for a matter of months or a year at the outside.

Just capitol gossip? Maybe, but Shirvani just asked the legislature for $5.4 million on top of the 38% increase in funding the university system is getting to put all 30 of the new hires he requested back into the budget (Governor Dalrymple gave Shirvani’s office only seven new employees). Given the attitudes on display at the legislature, that may be some tough sledding for Shirvani.