N.D. campus presidents say situation has improved
BISMARCK — Presidents of North Dakota’s public colleges and universities told the group that accredits their campuses Monday that concerns raised almost a year ago about the University System’s governance under former chancellor Hamid Shirvani have subsided under the system’s new leadership.
An advisory team from the Higher Learning Commission is visiting Bismarck to evaluate whether the system is meeting its standards.
Commission President Sylvia Manning scheduled the visit after former Valley City State University President Ellen Chaffee sent the HLC a letter last spring alleging the governance practices of the state Board of Higher Education and Shirvani violated the HLC’s requirements.
John Marr, chairman of the HLC advisory team and dean of academic affairs at Cuyahoga Community College in the Cleveland, Ohio, area, told campus presidents gathered at the Capitol on Monday that the visit “is not an inquisition.”
“It’s not an investigation. It’s not anything other than peers in higher education looking to understand some concerns that have been raised” about the system, Marr said.
After splitting the campus presidents into two groups, Marr’s first question to one of the groups was whether they agreed with the observations raised in Chaffee’s complaint at the time she wrote it. Among them: that Shirvani had cut off communication between the presidents and board members, that he presented information about institutions that was negative and possibly misleading and that he publicly labeled some of the presidents insufficiently qualified or incompetent.
The presidents affirmed Chaffee’s observations, but said changes made to board policies and procedures after the board bought out Shirvani’s contract last June for more than $925,000 have improved the situation. Bismarck State College President Larry Skogen is serving as interim chancellor.
“In spite of what was going on a year ago, the campuses were doing very well … and that’s only ratcheted up in the past year with new leadership of the board and new leadership of the system office,” North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani said. “I think we’re getting back to empowering the presidents to be as successful as we can be.”
John Richman, president of the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, said the presidents and campuses “are working more collaboratively together as a system today than we were even prior to this period of time. I see and I hear less competition.”
Another purpose of the HLC’s visit is to gather information about a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot that would replace the current eight-member volunteer Board of Higher Education with a commission of three paid full-time members.
“We have major concerns about this,” board President Kirsten Diederich said just before meeting with the HLC team.
Manning, the HLC president, wrote in a letter to the North Dakota Legislative Council in January that she believes the proposed structure “raises questions about whether … the institutions would be in compliance with the Commission’s requirements on governance.”
Under the proposal being put to voters, the governor would appoint the three full-time commission members to four-year terms from a list of nominees agreed to by a majority of the speaker of the state House of Representatives, the president pro tempore of the Senate, the chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court, the superintendent of public instruction and a representative of an educational interest group.
Diederich said components of HLC accreditation outline the need for a governing body autonomous from outside sources “as a buffer between the institutions and, say, political agendas.” In its accreditation criteria, the HLC requires an institution’s governing board to be independent “from undue influence on the part of donors, elected officials, ownership interests, or other external parties when such influence would not be in the best interest of the institution.”
“And (the HLC’s) concern may be that if you have three people that have been appointed by the Legislature and the governor that are paid, that they’re no longer as autonomous because their livelihood is based — but they haven’t said that yet,” Diederich said, cutting herself off. “We’re waiting.”
Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, who proposed the commission structure, told Forum News Service in February that the accreditation concerns are “a red herring” and that the commission would have the same autonomy as the current board and meet the HLC’s governing criteria.
Advisory team members will meet with state lawmakers on the Legislature’s Higher Education Funding Committee on Tuesday at the Capitol.
Commission staff will report their findings to Manning, who will determine if a recommendation for action by one of the HLC’s decision-making bodies is warranted, according to the statement.