Ham, We Hardly Knew Ye

So, the short, interesting life of Hamid Shirvani as a North Dakotan is about to come to an end. Gee, everybody who is surprised about THAT raise your hand. I’m looking, but I don’t see any hands in the air.

We’ve followed his antics, and that of his dysfunctional board, for a year or so now. In fact, it was just about exactly a year ago that I wrote about his pending arrival.

A new chancellor arrives any day now. Hamid Shirvani comes here from a couple of university posts in California, where he generated his own controversies. Most recently he received a vote of no confidence from the faculty at the University of California Stanislaus, where he served as the University president, news duly reported here at the time he was hired. He laid the no-confidence vote off on faculty disappointment over budget cuts in California’s financially stricken university system. What wasn’t reported here was the controversy surrounding a $75,000 speaking fee he paid to Sarah Palin for a fundraising appearance at his university in 2010, and the investigation by the California Attorney General into why he would not release the details of the speaking contract.

Ultimately after pressure from Legislators and the attorney general, the details were released, and the University made a bunch of money at the $500-a-plate fundraising dinner at which Palin spoke. (That’s Hamid with his arm around his new BFF Sarah.) But it was part of the uneasiness faculty felt, apparently, over Shirvani’s administration.

Shirvani was also embroiled in some controversy in a previous position, as Provost at Chapman University in southern California. Chapman’s student newspaper, The Panther, reported that “As provost, Shirvani regularly fought with the business school’s faculty about a range of issues, including parking, promotion, tenure and meetings, said Doug Tuggle, professor of business and dean of the Argryos School of Business and Economics from 2002 to 2005. Tuggle said he regularly found himself in the middle of fights between the faculty and Shirvani.  ‘I was pissed on from both sides,’ Tuggle said.”

Uffda. I hate it when that happens.

And so, Governor Dalrymple and his new State Board of Higher Education–by the end of the summer he will have appointed a majority of the members–and their new $350,000-a-year imported leader, go boldly now where no North Dakotans have gone before. It’s been a rocky first couple of years for the Governor. Let’s hope things get better.

Well, they didn’t get any better. And little wonder. Not much changed from what I wrote last year.

The board is about as dysfunctional as a herd of cats. It’s scary to think about this group being responsible for the expenditure of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year. It’s scary, I guess, to think of any volunteer board being responsible for the expenditure of that much money. Especially one with second tier members and a weak leader.

Actually, I was way off on the budget number. Not sure where I got that. You see, in spite of the dysfunction, the 2013 Legislature appropriated about $900 million for higher education for the upcoming biennium. Somehow, they seem to think that in spite of the dysfunction of the board, the system is delivering a quality product—a good education to North Dakota’s students. And they might be right.

So how did we get into this sorry state? How did we end up with such awful leadership of our colleges and universities? A year ago, I wrote that it is the fault of 20-plus years of one party controlling the Governor’s office. I still believe that. Here’s my logic.

Even though there is a screening committee which provides the Governor a list of three names from which to choose new board members, it always works out that a Governor gets to choose a member of his or her own political party. Generally, that’s how government works. To the victor goes the spoils. And so, when a Republican Governor takes over from a Democrat Governor, over a period of time, membership of the board changes over from Democrats to Republicans. That’s generally a good thing. New blood, new perspectives, and a board should reflect the wishes of the person who won the election and is in charge now. Elections have consequences.

And so, Ed Schafer began appointing Republicans in 1993. I don’t remember all of them but some of his first appointments were long-time Republican activists like Beverly Clayburgh, wife of Republican National Committeeman Ben Clayburgh, former Republican Legislator Joe Peltier, and Minot banker Jack Hoeven. All Republicans, yes, but most would say all qualified to help direct our university system. Over the next few years, a succession of good Republicans followed. But eventually, the Republican Party began running out of good qualified candidates. After 15 years or so, the Republican Governors began appointing second tier members. Poorly qualified board members, but with good Republican credentials. That makes for bad management. That’s what we have today. And it’s not unique to Republicans. After 20 years of Bill Guy and Art Link, Democrats had the same problem in the 1970’s. Allen Olson was able to bring some new Republican blood to the board in his short term in the early 1980’s and Bud Sinner replaced all of those in his terms in the 1980’s and into the 1990’s. The turnover in the Governor’s office from one party to another was healthy for the Board of Higher Education.

But after 20 years of Republican rule in Bismarck, the board and the governance of the state’s university system has become one big cluster . . . well, you know.

I also wrote a year ago about a second problem—a change in North Dakota’s constitution in 1996, a problem which Mike Jacobs, publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, pointed out to me.

When the board was created in the 1930’s, the constitution called for seven-year terms, with no possibility of reappointment. Members were appointed, served seven years, then left. In 1996, we changed the constitution to call for four-year terms with reappointment to a second four-year term possible—and almost, as it turns out, automatic. It sounded pretty innocuous at the time—going from a seven year term to an eight year term–so we voted for it. It gave the Governor quicker control of a majority of the board. Under this scenario, with two appointments a year, the Governor could get a majority of his own members on the board in just two years, and get rid of all of his predecessor’s members in four. It used to take seven years to get rid of all seven members. For example, even though George Sinner left office in 1992, his final appointment, a Dickinson Democrat, Paul Ebeltoft, served until the end of 1998. In fact, he served as president of the board in 1997, when there were actually five Republican appointees on the board. Those were less contentious times between the political parties, I guess. It wouldn’t happen today.

Well, the 2013 Legislature decided to try to fix the problem. In their goofiest action of the year, they voted to completely abolish the State Board of Higher Education’s and replace it with a three-person, full-time committee, who will hire an administrator to run things, just like the current board hires a chancellor. I use the word goofy, because this is what will happen if the voters approve the measure the Legislature is putting before them on the 2014 ballot:

The pay scale for the presidents of our state’s 11 colleges and universities is about $120,000 to $320,000. Small college presidents make less, university presidents make more. The presidents work for the chancellor, who therefore must make more than they do, so Shirvani is paid about $350,000 a year. Assume that will continue under the new system. You can’t have the presidents making more than they guy they work for. But the guy they work for is hired by the three-person committee, and they will have to make more than the chancellor. Say about $400,000. Think we’re getting a little top-heavy here? Does the Legislature really think the voters are going to approve that? Dream on.

So now, the board, in what could be its last official act before being abolished, has to replace Shirvani. Boy, is that going to be fun. Who’s going to want to take that job, considering what has been happening here in the past few years, and what might happen in the 2014 election?

There’s probably more to play out here over the next few days and weeks. I can’t imagine it getting any more chaotic, but nothing will surprise me. Will Shirvani stick around for a while to lead the board and a new chancellor through a transition? I kind of hope so. Ever since he got here, I’ve been hoping to get a chance to meet Sarah Palin.

8 thoughts on “Ham, We Hardly Knew Ye

  1. Good work, Jim.
    All the gnashing of teeth, wailing and moaning, huffing and gasping, about that @#$%$# Board and Jim is the first to lay the problem at the feet of the person who appoints the Board.
    Among the other 49 states, there must be one or two who have a sensible Higher Ed system worth studying.
    Perhaps our state Chamber of Commerce could put up billboards in Minnesota reading: ND University System- Still Looking for Leadership.


    1. things are the same this year as the last twenty, class of 2013 are leaving the state as fast as they can. only difference most of them are leaving because their not from here. the state residents cant afford the cost of schooling. so what is the problem. the corporations are in control of the state. we lost are say along time ago.


  2. I have another theory for you to chew on. I don’t believe a group of people can be as incompetent and ineffective as our Board of Higher Ed is by accident. I don’t think it’s possible to put a group of people together to screw things up as badly as they have through mere chance. I believe this is intentional. I think people in charge of this state want to make fundamental changes to our university system, including eliminating the board and closing down many of the smaller schools named in the state constitution. They can’t do this without the people becoming disgusted with the current system and demanding change. How do you do that when the system can work perfectly well with even marginally competent people in charge, when they at least try to act in the best interests of the university system? You can’t. So you find a bunch of people who are either (a) incompetent or (b) ill-willed and get them to destroy the reputation of the university system. How? Maybe an easily avoidable diploma mill scandal. Maybe get the board to hire an intensely controversial chancellor who has already gotten a vote of no confidence from another school. Pay him/her too much. Then pay him/her too much again to leave. Maybe some other absurd scandals involving plush offices for the chancellor in Grand Forks. Maybe some other scandals. Then repeat. The people will feel like they have to do something to make things better. What options will be available to them on the 2014 ballot? Bad options. But what else are the voters going to do?


  3. It is not the structure of the board that is the problem. It is the people who are appointed to it. The members of this board are charged with overseeing an eleven campus university system with 40,000 students, 10,000 employees, hundreds of buildings, a medical school, a law school, the ag experiment station system, the extension service, graduate degree programs, $200 million dollars a year of contract research and a billion dollar state operating budget. Yet there are people on this board who have never managed a budget past their household or supervised anybody other than a few student workers. The chief qualification of the new vice president of the board is being a retired high school basketball coach. The new president’s qualifications are at least as thin. There must be a method to avoid the petty politicians who the governor thinks he owes a job to. We need on this board people who have some knowledge of how a university is run, some experience managing large numbers of employees and also some experience with million dollar budgets. These people exist in North Dakota. The governor must be forced to find them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s