Critic of North Dakota Chancellor and Board Asks Accreditor for Investigation

April 03, 2013

Dissent continues to build against the leadership of Hamid A. Shirvani, chancellor of the North Dakota University system, and the State Board of Higher Education, which oversees the system.

Mr. Shirvani has been at the center of several skirmishes since he took office, in July, as current and former employees of the system and several state legislators have complained about his actions and demeanor.

The latest development is a letter of complaint to the regional accreditor for the system's 10 campuses, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. The letter's author, a former campus president and system vice chancellor for academic affairs, says that the board and the chancellor are violating the accreditor's standards for governance by prohibiting the institutions and their presidents from participating in the development of policy.

"The governance and administrative structures that have been put in place since Chancellor Hamid Shirvani took office on July 1, 2012, undermine effective leadership, prohibit collaborative processes, fail to engage internal constituencies, prevent board members from being knowledgeable about the institutions, and pre-empt academic involvement in educational policy decisions," writes Ellen Chaffee, president emerita of Valley City State University.

Ms. Chaffee was also among six former campus presidents who sent a letter to the state board last month urging it to "terminate the current chancellor for cause or by negotiation and then find a new chancellor."

In her new letter, Ms. Chaffee asks the Higher Learning Commission to investigate the alleged violations of its standards and to consider issuing a sanction based on them.

In an e-mail response to the letter, a spokeswoman for the system said that Ms. Chaffee's "numerous negative statements" about the board and Mr. Shirvani "appear to be primarily based on rumors and misinformation."

"Nevertheless," the spokeswoman, Linda Donlin, wrote, "we have every intention to respond to the Higher Learning Commission if and when it chooses to follow up on any portion of" the complaint.

While it's unclear what will result from the complaint to the accreditor, the six-page letter, with more than 40 pages of supporting documents, is the most thorough public accounting yet of the troubles that critics say are plaguing the North Dakota system.

In addition to repeating complaints about possible violations of the state's open-meetings law, the letter states that the chancellor and the board enacted a major new set of admissions standards without allowing for feedback from the campuses.

Mr. Shirvani, the letter says, has forced out several veteran system employees, including the chief academic officer, whose position has remained unfilled since July. An interim academic officer worked for six months in that position and has vowed not to return to North Dakota, the letter says. (But the interim official, John Haller, denies that assertion, saying he has only stopped commuting to North Dakota from his home in Illinois to deal with health problems.)

"Two of the three professional assistants in academic affairs have resigned, as have the board secretary and the director of financial aid, citing unwillingness to tolerate Shirvani's lack of ethics and his treatment of people," Ms. Chaffee writes.

The letter also brings up the recent statements by a current system employee, who testified to state lawmakers and filed a complaint with the state attorney general's office alleging that the chancellor had falsified data about the graduation rates at certain institutions in a presentation he made to a legislative committee.

Finally, Ms. Chaffee blasts the board for its support of Mr. Shirvani in the face of mounting controversy. She writes:

"What kind of governing board goes out of its way … to hire a highly controlling, abrasive, negative chancellor with a bad track record and offers him 100% support when he disparages the board's institutions, fires people without cause, hires inexperienced people, cuts off communication between the board and the institutions, threatens his senior leadership team, secures a one-man state strategic plan during his first three months in the state, and routinely breaks the open meetings law? I submit it is a board that has well earned a sanction from the accrediting body."

Correction (4/5/2013, 4:56 p.m.): This article originally stated that an interim academic officer had vowed not to return to North Dakota. The article cited as the source of this information the letter of complaint submitted to the regional accreditor. Since the article’s publication, that interim official has said he did not vow never to return. He has only stopped commuting to North Dakota from his home in Illinois to deal with health problems, he says. The article has been updated to reflect that.