Shivani Accuses Critics Of Racism, Says University Presidents Don't Want Change


In a column for the Grand Forks Herald, Chancellor Hamid Shirvani takes the gloves off in responding to some of his critics.

This is tough medicine a lot of North Dakotans – especially in the political class – aren’t going to want to hear.

BISMARCK — It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the news that these past several months have been challenging for me and the members of the State Board of Higher Education.

No sooner is one issue or rumor raised in the media than another follows in short order, with still another waiting in the wings.

And no sooner are the complaints answered than a second round begins, reintroducing what had been alleged in the first instance — assuming that if repeated enough, people will begin to believe it to be true.

Among the allegations made against me and/or the board is a baseless litany of misinformation — a new one seemed to mysteriously surface every week during the Legislative session — ranging from negative, downright racist comments about me, laced with harsh criticisms of my leadership style to false rumors about firing staff to exaggerated accusations about rushing policies or plans.

I understand the power of inertia when it comes to change. I also understand that pride in one’s culture can have a myopic effect on what is viewed as acceptable or not.

Shirvani’s fundamental problem in North Dakota is that he is a change agent introduced to a system that doesn’t want to be changed. He is a reformer put in charge of a network of bureaucrats who see no need for reform.

We can quibble about his approach – Shirvani himself has admitted that some of his early moves upon taking his current job were a bit tone deaf – but the desperate need for change in North Dakota’s university system is apparent to anyone who dares to look.

After a legislative session which saw unprecedented budget growth for the state’s universities, the State Board of Higher Education went along with a plan put forward by the university presidents to take even more from students in the form of tuition.

All the public seems interested in is UND hockey, and NDSU football, buying into the misconception that these are profitable programs which bring in revenues for the universities. But it isn’t true. Both programs rely heavily on millions in student fees and university subsidies and, if left on their own, would operate deeply in the red.

All the state’s newspapers seem to care about is the latest economic development deal or research grant coming out of the universities. They ignore very real problems with graduation rates, administrative bloat and run-away costs to both students and taxpayers.

And all the state’s elected leaders – from legislators to the executive branch – seem to care about is keeping the university presidents and the alumni (who control a lot of political money in the state) happy.

Shirvani’s problem – at least in the eyes of his critics – is that he wants a university system that benefits students and the state, not a university system that is benefited by students and the state. He has been tasked, as an outsider in a state which doesn’t like outsiders, with changing the direction of North Dakota’s largest government problem child.

He deserves support in that mission, not political attacks.

I’m beginning to wonder whether or not Shirvani can hold on. The review the State Board of Higher Ed has initiated is, while not entirely inappropriate, seemingly the first nail in his coffin.

If he is pushed out – if he joins former Chancellor Potts as the second university system chancellor in less than a decade sent packing because the university presidents don’t like him – it would be a sad day for North Dakota and the push for higher ed reform.