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NDUS responds to accreditation concerns

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani provided "clear and compelling evidence" the State Board of Higher Education is "committed to and compliant" with accreditation guidelines, according to a document released Saturday.

An investigation by a commission charged with accrediting the University System continues after Shirvani was voted out by the board earlier this month. His last day as chancellor will be July 15.

Shirvani and the board's leadership was challenged after Ellen Chaffee, a former campus president, filed a complaint with the Higher Learning Commission in April and claimed there was a dysfunctional relationship between Shirvani and the board and violations of other accreditation criteria.

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.


Shirvani and board President Duaine Espegard responded to the complaint Friday with a 31-page document that provided online links to agendas, past board meeting minutes and policy information as examples of their compliance with accreditation issues.

They did not respond to Chaffee's specific allegations against Shirvani or the board "because they are presented with limited facts or evidence."

When the commission first contacted Shirvani and Espegard about the complaint, Chaffee had alleged the board violated open meetings laws with encouragement from the chancellor. In response, Shirvani and Espegard said the board has been in compliance with all laws and discussed the attorney general's recent finding that the board violated open meeting laws in March and April.

"Subsequently, the board and NDUS staff have swiftly taken corrective actions to ensure they do not recur," the document stated. "Among the corrective actions are the preparation of clear guidelines by the NDUS general counsel for the board and an education session provided to the board by the attorney general."

The commission also noted integrity questions related to Chaffee's remarks on "frequent turnover" of employees in the system as well as the board violating "its own procedures" by not holding second readings for policy.

Shirvani and Espegard stated that while the board generally required two readings of any draft policy before adoption, it had the authority to waive this and revised the policy to not require second readings in September 2012. The board had always held "the authority to waive second readings, and it used that authority for years, both before and during the current chancellor's appointment," said the document.

President policies

Regarding new policy changes in general, only two policies addressing terms of presidential appointments "were met with notable pushback by the presidents, some of whom expressed strong opposition" to contract changes and a perceived reduction in responsibilities, the document stated. The board intended to improve policies and move to annually renew contracts rather than every three years or less, a common practice at many university systems now, the document said.

"During subsequent meetings with presidents, the chancellor and general counsel were able to work through the issues," the document stated.

Shirvani and Espegard's response also addressed previous decisions and challenges faced by Shirvani and the board, including his plan to overhaul the state's education system and various examples of the ways the board has tried to improve communication among the chancellor, the board and presidents.

In the Higher Learning Commission's request for a response from Espegard and Shirvani, commission President Sylvia Manning said she would contact them after receiving their response on how to proceed. The commission could send a visiting team to conduct an extended review if necessary or dismiss the complaint, she said.