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Despite 'rocky start' to chancellor's term, Dalrymple sees successes, potential in ND's higher ed system

BISMARCK -- Relentless scrutiny of North Dakota's higher education system is nothing new, Gov. Jack Dalrymple said Friday.

But the fractured relationship between some legislators and embattled Chancellor Hamid Shirvani may be stirring the pot even more.

"Higher education has always been a big topic of attention as long as I've been around, and that just seems to continue," the governor and former state representative said. "It would be nice if it could settle down and be a little bit quieter for a period of time, but I can't honestly think of a time when we didn't have somewhat of a rocking boat."

Dalrymple said one "source of irritation" is the constitutional division of authority in place here since 1938, when voters approved the creation of the State Board of Higher Education. While the board is tasked with hiring the chancellor and overseeing the 11 public campuses, the Legislature has few options to weigh in, other than setting the budget.

Still, he said the North Dakota University System is generally ranked among the top one-third of American higher education systems, and he said the state now has 11 institutions doing a good job of meeting the education and workforce training demands of a changing state.

Dalrymple said the state has made strides in improving its system in recent decades, both through the work of the board and the Legislature. But those positive steps may be overlooked as reporters, pundits and critics focus on the conflict with Shirvani, including an amendment passed by the Senate that would give the board enough money to buy out the remainder of his three-year contract.

"It's a little discouraging at times that we do spend so much time on a personnel issue or something else that really is a small, small piece of the big picture," he said.

Dalrymple said the system faces challenges, including overzealous steps since Shirvani began his job July 1 to implement the kinds of higher education reforms that have been discussed here for decades.

"I don't think it's any secret that this chancellor is off to a bit of a rocky start, and there are clearly a number of people who feel that he's been too aggressive and people don't appreciate that," Dalrymple said.

He said part of the problem has been the quick pace Shirvani has worked at to enact sweeping changes, including the Pathways to Student Success plan that will raise admission standards in an attempt to improve graduation rates and other outcomes. But he said the issue often has been the way these changes are being made, not the actual changes.

Higher education has remained a top issue during the current legislative session, with lawmakers mulling five proposals that would abolish the board, create a new elected commissioner of higher education or lead to other sweeping reforms.

Dalrymple believes current board members understand they need to "settle things down one way or the other" and move past the current disruptions to do their job.

"I would have to say that of all the options that there are out there, I do not see a better system of governance than we have today," he said. "I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying it's ideal, but when you start talking about alternatives, they have their drawbacks, too.

"The concept of an independent board of policymakers for higher education is not a bad concept," Dalrymple said. "But, of course, you have to hope that it's being well-executed."