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Behind the silence: Emails show ND university, college presidents have bristled at Shirvani's leadership

BISMARCK -- Minot State University President David Fuller had some tough talk for presidents of North Dakota's 11 public colleges and universities after the March 7 meeting of the board that oversees the system.

In that meeting, Sydney Hull, the student member of the State Board of Higher Education, publicly aired detailed criticisms of the board and Chancellor Hamid Shirvani -- including allegations that the board had met illegally and forced out a longtime North Dakota University System attorney who raised red flags about the meetings.

"We reached an all-time low today," Fuller wrote in an email. "A student had the courage and resolve to stand up and challenge those points in front of the board, and we all just sat there. It wasn't a very proud day for the presidents in this system."

The presidents have made few public comments about the controversial leadership of Shirvani or the actions of the board since his tenure began July 1 of last year, despite concerns that have prompted legislators to consider giving the board the $850,000 needed to buy out the duration of Shirvani's three-year contract.

But a review of more than 1,000 of the presidents' emails -- obtained by The Forum newspaper in multiple open records requests -- show they had many serious issues with Shirvani's leadership that arose shortly after he started, often focused on the chancellor's lack of communication with them.

North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani even said in an email, after a student group voted in favor of a resolution opposing Shirvani, that the next step might be "getting bids from movers" -- though the written exchange makes it unclear if he meant hiring a mover for himself or Shirvani.

In an interview last week, Shirvani said he's adjusted his leadership style to better suit the demands of the state.

Bresciani declined an interview request through an NDSU spokeswoman, citing Board Policy 305.1, which includes a requirement for presidents to consistently "support and adhere to ... Board beliefs and core values, Board policies and NDUS procedures, and Board and Chancellor directives and guidelines."

University of North Dakota President Robert Kelley also declined an interview request through a spokesman.

But Fuller, who first started in the system in 2004 and said he was drawn by the "collegiality and collaboration and trust" he saw here, said in an interview that the presidents' public silence shows there's been an "amazing change" this year that has often left them little chance to comment without worrying about a potential fallout.

"I think communication is a real issue right now, and I think we'd be in much better shape if there would be more of an openness and a willingness to allow people to speak and share points of view," said Fuller, who plans to retire in 2014.

A purposeful silence

Fuller said in the interview that he doesn't blame a board member, or even Shirvani, for solely causing a communication breakdown. But he said it's clear the presidents are worried about what could happen if they speak out while the controversy plays out on newspaper editorial pages and in legislative hearings.

"I think there's just a real fragility you could say about just communicating and wondering if this is the right thing to do, and is it going to come back and hurt the campus?" Fuller said.

The reluctance of presidents to speak out about higher education issues is clear in numerous instances in the emails.

In early January, Bresciani wrote in an email to NDSU Provost Bruce Rafert that the upcoming Jan. 14 University System presentation to legislators in Bismarck "may get ugly," but he planned to stay out of the discussion.

"Although many campus leaders will probably be there, the approach we're taking is to purposefully NOT be there so that I/we can't be asked what we think about the Chancellor's plans," he wrote in the email.

Even the appearance of publicly opposing Shirvani in late January earned praise for Kelley after a plan to use part of a new information technology building on the Grand Forks campus for a University System office and meeting suite became a public quarrel and the topic of a special legislative hearing.

On Feb. 2, Williston State College President Ray Nadolny sent Kelley an email with the subject line "Thank you" and the message "For being the representative of North Dakota's premier university. Despite what takes place in the system, you raise the bar for all of us."

Kelley thanked Nadolny in response, but said "the media has put a spin" on his Jan. 18 memo to Shirvani that was seen by some as questioning the chancellor's authority to make the change, and said that apparent meaning "was unintended when I requested clarification."

Three days later, Kelley was emailed by an employee at California State University-Stanislaus, where Shirvani served as president before taking over as North Dakota's chancellor last summer. Susan Clapper wrote that Kelley had "a wave of support behind you in California" and encouraged him to "stay strong and keep the faith."

Kelley responded by thanking Clapper. "I know very clearly the origins of your sentiment," he wrote.

An email from December shows Bresciani turning down an interview request with The Forum newspaper to discuss the rapid changes of the system and its leadership.

But Bresciani told his assistant in an email that he'd "sure like to" talk, and other exchanges obtained in the open records request suggest he had serious reservations about challenging Shirvani in public.

Mounting frustrations

Despite his silence in public, Bresciani privately expressed his frustration with Shirvani, referring in one email to the chancellor's "objectionable way of doing business."

In several emails, he objects to requests from Shirvani or University System staff for data, documents or the final say on decisions. "My sense is that having to approve EVERYTHING is starting to catch up to him," he wrote Oct. 12 to NDSU Vice President for Finance and Administration Bruce Bollinger upon news that Shirvani had signed off on a lease that needed his approval.

Bresciani also expressed frustration with Shirvani's involvement earlier this year as NDSU officials froze a $1.2 million federal grant awarded to two researchers for a voluntary sex education program in collaboration with Planned Parenthood. The program was put on hold for a month over a potential conflict with state law.

On Jan. 30, Shirvani announced the system staff had requested Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem to research the law and issue a written opinion to resolve the legal question.

The following day, Bresciani emailed the grant recipients to say he was "disappointed (that's a substantial understatement)" that they all were unaware of the development until they heard about it through the media.

"Nonetheless, I am at a loss to explain why all of us found ourselves reading about it without prior engagements," Bresciani wrote in the email. "I wish I could suggest that will change in the future, but sadly, we probably shouldn't hold our breath on it."

Kelley's emails imply he readjusted his reporting style to meet Shirvani's expectations. On Dec. 15, he emailed executive assistant Pat Bohnet to ask that she inform the chancellor's office whenever he would be away from UND on university business or personal leave.

"In the future, I believe it will be best for all communications between the UND president's office and the NDUS system office to be in writing," he wrote in an email. "This should avoid miscommunication and misunderstanding regarding directives from the chancellor and his staff ..."

Shirvani sent a memo to the campus presidents Aug. 29 saying several had contacted his office with conflicts for an upcoming cabinet meeting between the chancellor and presidents, and some had asked permission to send a representative in their place.

"In order to be clear on this matter, I consider these meetings of the Cabinet to trump all other administrative commitments save those of the SBHE," Shirvani wrote, adding their "attendance is expected" for these six meetings each year.

On Nov. 20, Shirvani's staff instructed the presidents to meet in Bismarck for a Dec. 5 cabinet meeting to discuss the new higher education funding proposal on the day Gov. Jack Dalrymple would unveil his budget recommendations. But on the morning of Dec. 5, just two hours before the meeting was scheduled to start, he abruptly canceled, emails show.

Bresciani referred to the "now fabled cancellation of chancellor's cabinet" in a Dec. 16 email with two NDSU vice presidents, and said he would be attending the rescheduled meeting the next morning.

"I look forward to learning what my opinion is on a variety of matters," Bresciani wrote in the email.

Soap opera on steroids

By Feb. 5, as news broke of the proposal to give the higher ed board money to buyout Shirvani's contract, Bresciani wrote in response to an email from a Pennsylvania college president that the situation had degraded to a "daytime drama on steroids."

The buyout provision of the higher education budget was approved in the Senate, where it was proposed by outspoken Shirvani critic Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, and rejected by the House. Before the end of the session Friday, a group of six lawmakers will hash out the differences between the bills in a conference committee, after which the Senate and House must approve the bill again.

Also on Feb. 5, NDSU University Distinguished Professor (UDP) Neil Gudmestad emailed Bresciani with a link to a news article on the buyout proposal.

"I seem to remember a university leader saying this man wasn't qualified to be chancellor," Gudmestad wrote. "I wonder what that individual is thinking now?"

Bresciani replied later that evening, "Given the clairvoyance that only a UDP can bring to complex questions, I'll bet you can in some situations read minds? ;-)"

On Feb. 23, executive assistant Barb Pedersen forwarded Bresciani a link to The Forum's online report of a North Dakota Student Association vote of "no confidence" in Shirvani and to support Grindberg's buyout plan, simply sending the message, "Whoa..."

Bresciani replied minutes later, "I'll say...and it apparently wasn't even close."

Pederson asks, "What's the next step?" - prompting an unclear response from Bresciani.

"Start getting bids from movers?" Bresciani wrote.

Pathways problems

Shirvani said in an interview that he's learned a clear lesson this year -- his "very direct, no-nonsense" leadership style needed to be adjusted to better suit North Dakota's culture and expectations for the chancellor.

Shirvani said in the interview that he started the job with the directive to quickly develop a plan before the start of the legislative session in January to make a meaningful change to the University System and show lawmakers that higher education leaders were serious about advancing.

That goal prompted him to lead a revision of 16 board policies in his first months here, work that he said aimed to structure North Dakota's system to operate more like other leading models of higher education in the U.S.

Shirvani also oversaw the board's rapid adoption of the Pathways plan to revamp admission standards and boost student graduation and retention rates. He unveiled the basic idea in August, and on Sept. 26, the board approved the concept.

But a lack of information about the idea and minimal chances for presidents and other campus leaders to weigh in mired the plan in controversy and fear soon after it was first proposed.

In an email, Bresciani responded with skepticism to a Sept. 27 announcement of the board's approval of the Pathways plan, calling it "an embarrassing fiasco and sham. Of course there are not details worked out."

The concerns were particularly strong at Minot State University.

Fuller and other campus officials feared the changes to admission standards, tuition charges and the overall missions of the different colleges and universities in the state could cut enrollment and diminish the university's status in the state, just as it struggled to rebound from Minot's record flooding in 2011 and the growing impact of the oil boom in western North Dakota, according to several emails last fall.

Shirvani said his approach was to achieve the Pathways plan in "reverse style" - he'd get agreement on the general concept, and then spend the next several years developing it and working out the detail so it best suits the individual needs of the campuses and the goals of the system.

"I was under direct instruction by the board to move fast, and we did given the advice that we had at that time," the chancellor said in an interview. "We may have rushed, and if I knew that much that I know now, we would go a little slower."

Shirvani said the early missteps haven't caused any lasting "damage" to the system, and he's learned his lesson from those communication issues. He said of the more than a dozen board policy changes he proposed, just one became controversial after being approved in September -- the section that outlines the responsibilities and job security of the presidents.

On Feb. 18, Shirvani emailed the presidents to announce that he decided that controversial policy would be the central topic of conversation at a cabinet meeting scheduled for the next week, noting in the email that his decision to revisit the policy change was based on the presidents' concerns about it.

Shirvani told The Forum that conversation led to proposed revisions of the policies to address the concerns, and the revisions are scheduled for a vote May 9.

Fuller told The Forum that was a "very positive" change, as was the ongoing process since last fall to tweak the Pathways plan, delay its implementation and temporarily exempt Minot State from some of the reforms.

Rumor mill

Still, Fuller said in an interview that many of the issues that plague the system today could've been resolved or avoided entirely with better dialogue before things reached this point.

That included months of rumors that Fuller said affected his role as acting president of Dakota College at Bottineau. Last fall, Fuller was informed by DCB Campus Dean Ken Grosz of a conversation with Shirvani about an idea to make Grosz the DCB president and cut the college's affiliation with Minot State.

Fuller eventually reached out to Shirvani in February, writing in an email that he had "considerable concern" if this was true because he should've been consulted. Shirvani responded to Fuller that the topic never rose above "informal discussions among board members."

But it took several more emails before Shirvani put the issue to rest by saying it had only come up because it seemed like an appropriate time to consider such a change with Fuller's announced retirement in June 2014, and it was decided not to move ahead with the change.

Fuller told The Forum that a more open approach can avoid problems that may come up in the future if they aren't addressed and dealt with head-on.

"I think there are a lot of concerns on the campuses, but I think it really comes down to just that whole level of trust and communication and building that up again and returning to a time when we did operate in a shared way," he said.

Fuller said despite the challenges of the past year, he's optimistic that the North Dakota University System can once again get back to the cooperative spirit that has been lost in the recent controversy. But leaving the turmoil behind can only happen with the work of everyone -- presidents, lawmakers, Shirvani and University System leaders, he said.

"Frankly, this year's been very tough on this whole system and on all the campuses," Fuller said. "I think it can only go up now, and I'm positive that can happen."

Shirvani told The Forum he's ready to move on after a tough year marked by calls for his dismissal and serious allegations against his leadership.

He said he is focused on the things that originally drew him to North Dakota: the state's "golden opportunity" and the right ingredients to make the University System one of the best in the country within the next decade.

"It's poised to do that because a lot of people, average men and women in North Dakota, believe in higher education and want quality higher education," Shirvani said. "I hope we can go beyond this political assassination and character assassination and just get on with the substance."