Byrd: Shirvani was a scapegoat
Newspapers and concerned citizens continued to rake former North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani over the coals this week, following his acceptance of a contract buyout earlier this month from the state Board of Higher Education.
Lawmakers targeted the embattled chancellor repeatedly throughout this last legislative session, with one going so far as to offer a bill to provide more than $800,000 to the higher ed board for the purpose of buying out Shirvani's contract. The bill failed and the actual cost is roughly $925,000.
But now that Shirvani is out as chancellor, opinions about the man and the buyout have been flowing into and out of newspapers across the state. Letter after letter, column after column has put me in a perpetual state of facepalm (think high-fiving your face in frustration).
On more than one occasion, I've found myself eliminating possible libel from either letters to the editor or opinion pieces suggesting that Shirvani, in his duties as chancellor, violated state laws.
Some, in their opinion, recall that Shirvani was investigated for an accusation that he requested alternate college comparison data in an attempt to mislead legislative committees. A majority want to say that Shirvani violated the state's open meeting laws. Others say Shirvani was a bully in the workplace and that just won't fly in North Dakota.
In a June 4 Forum News Service story, Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, actually hit on all three points, saying "she believes the state Board of Higher Education had cause '16 ways to China' to fire Shirvani without paying out the remaining two years of his three-year contract. Hawken said Shirvani was 'less than factual' and 'misleading' when testifying before legislative committees, violated the state's open meeting laws and created a hostile work environment that led to a high rate of turnover in the university system office."
Hawken's selective or faulty memory didn't prevent her from bad-mouthing the former chancellor. You see, the accusation that Shirvani mislead lawmakers was audited. It was determined that although his data request could be misconstrued or misunderstood as illegal, it was a perfectly legal request.
And the North Dakota attorney general determined that the state Board of Higher Education violated the state's open meeting laws. Shirvani was an employee of the board, not a member of it. He may have been at the meetings, he may have requested that the meetings take place, but it was impossible for the chancellor to violate open meeting laws. Only the board could have done that. And it did. Pervasively.
And so what if Shirvani intimidated the university presidents? I seem to recall that many, many people here in Stark County are perfectly fine with a boss accused of bullying his employees. Stark County Sheriff Clarence Tuhy was accused just last year of creating a "toxic" work environment in an office experiencing a high rate of turnover. Déjà vu, anyone?
Those accusations were so strong that the case went before retired state judge William Hodny, who then submitted a report to the governor. During the hearing, more than 20 witnesses testified. Hodny's report to Gov. Jack Dalrymple said that "Tuhy's manner was sometimes 'indelicate,' but ... that doesn't justify removal."
And that wasn't even the first time Tuhy faced such allegations. An Aug. 9 report by The Press states that "in 2008, Dickinson City Attorney Matthew Kolling wrote two letters to Henning alleging Tuhy was 'bullying, intimidating and being verbally aggressive toward employees within the dispatch division.'"
So there you go. Accusations of workplace intimidation are not a problem for the residents of Stark County (many of whom wrote letters to the editor in support of Tuhy keeping his job and who are in charge of re-electing the sheriff every few years), and it's not a problem for Gov. Dalrymple.
Shirvani's contract was bought out for one reason: He was not well liked as a leader and as an outsider, North Dakotans could easily point the finger and say "That's what's wrong with our university system. Off with his head!"
So Shirvani is gone now, and lo and behold in Friday's edition of The Press ran the headline, "Another illegal meeting for state higher ed board?" Turns out Espegard, President-elect Kirsten Diederich and Vice President-elect Terry Hjelmstad had a little "listening meeting" with the 11 university presidents, at least one of whom -- NDSU President Dean Bresciani -- agreed with Espegard that the meeting was not an official board meeting, despite appearances that the three were representatives of the board, or a committee.
Espegard was quoted as saying, "In my wildest dreams, I can't see how this could possibly be a violation of anything. It's good business practice. Wouldn't you want to talk to your presidents at a time like this to say, 'Give me your input?'"
I answer by saying absolutely, Mr. Espegard, just not if it violates open meeting laws. Your scapegoat is gone. You've got to be a little more careful now.
Byrd is the news editor for The Dickinson Press. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him at klarkbyrd.