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Ellen Chaffee

Higher ed official questions NDUS leaders

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GRAND FORKS -- A commission charged with accrediting the North Dakota University System is investigating a complaint filed by a former university president about the system's leadership.

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Ellen Chaffee, former president of Valley City State University, alleged that the governance practices of the State Board of Higher Education and the system chancellor violate the Higher Learning Commission requirements for accreditation, according to a letter from the commission.

Chancellor Hamid Shirvani and state board President Duaine Espegard, who were sent the letter along with the 11 institution presidents within the University System, must respond to the allegations by June 15. The commission could also send a visiting team to conduct a more extensive review if found appropriate, or it could dismiss the complaint, it stated.

"We are confident that when the HLC reviews our response, it will be assured that the complaint submitted is without substance," said Linda Donlin, University System communications director.

Chaffee declined to comment.

The commission, based in Chicago, accredits more than 1,000 colleges and universities in 19 states, including North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. Institutions must meet criteria such as upholding integrity and recognizing diversity to merit accreditation.

'Questions'

The letter stated Chaffee identified issues that "do raise questions about the institutions' compliance with the Commission's Criteria for Accreditation," and "appear to be confirmed by information in the media."

The issues, and the related commission criteria, are listed as the following:

-- Best interest of the institution: Chafee alleged the chancellor has "acted with undue influence on the board to cut off its communications with the leadership of the institutions the board governs," according to the letter. Chafee also remarked on a lack of communication between institution presidents and the board and that Shirvani has further "compromised and isolated" the board by presenting information about institutions "particularly with regard to retention and completion, that is not only negative but that the system auditor indicated could be construed as misleading."

-- Effectiveness of institutional leadership: Chaffee said there was frequent employee turnover because the chancellor "terminated or furloughed individuals who disagreed with him" and has not replaced "key individuals, such as the chief academic officer, in a timely manner with permanent replacements." She said he has "publicly labeled some of the institutional presidents as insufficiently qualified or incompetent" and that he "severed communication between the institutional presidents and board."

Chaffee also alleged Shirvani pushed forward his Pathways to Student Success reform plan, along with changes to admissions policies and presidential compensation and review policies that were adopted without proper consultation with campus leaders or the public.

Donlin said Pathways is the "foundation for long-range transformation that will move NDUS forward in its vision to become a premier system of higher education in the country."

-- Integrity of institutional operations: Chafee has also said the board, with encouragement by Shirvani, violated open meetings laws and said several times it "violated its own procedures that call for two readings of proposed policy changes and made significant policy changes in a single reading and without public comment."

'Personnel decision'

Although Chaffee also raised questions about whether the chancellor's background made him suitable for the position, the commission stated it doesn't typically "attempt to determine whether a board has made an appropriate personnel decision in hiring a specific individual who generally appears to be appropriately qualified."

John Hausaman, process administrator at the commission, said it receives a number of complaints about institutions from staff, students, faculty and other parties, but would not clarify how frequent these requests are made or if they are considered rare.

"Where a complaint does raise issues regarding the institution's ongoing ability to meet our criteria for accreditation, the commission forwards the complaint to the institution and requests a formal response," he said.

Hausaman said further steps would be determined after the commission receives a response, and any outcomes resulting from formal action taken by the commission would be made public.

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