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Office space at UND for chancellor upsets university president, lawmakers

BISMARCK -- State lawmakers and the University of North Dakota's president are questioning the authority of the state's University System to use part of a new information technology building to create office space for the chancellor.

The Legislature in 2011 approved $12.5 million from the state's general fund for a joint building between the University System and UND, to consolidate University System IT personnel, who are currently sprawled throughout multiple buildings on the Grand Forks campus and in Fargo and Bismarck.

The issue was raised by UND President Robert Kelley in a Jan. 18 memo to Chancellor Hamid Shirvani. The memo questioned why space in the new building that was approved to specifically be used for information technology purposes, was being converted into office space for Shirvani, who just took over as chancellor in 2012.

The new proposal would remove space for 24 cubicles and replace them with a 486-square-foot office for Shirvani, 566-square-foot board room, 529-square-foot reception area, 271-square-foot office and a bathroom and kitchenette.

In an email from Linda Donlin, director of communications and media relations for the University System, Shirvani said, "the plan is to make the best, most efficient use of NDUS space while keeping with our long-range plans of ensuring a well-run organization that puts students first and is run like a true system with a Chancellor who is visible, accessible and in touch with what is going on."

Donlin said a large reason for the new office is because two-thirds of the University System's students are in eastern North Dakota and because it has 119 IT staff members in Grand Forks, "so it only makes sense that he spends more of his time there," she said.

Randall Thursby, chief information officer for the University System, said the building has always had an adjustable floor plan.

The original plan, drafted in February 2012, had a maximum capacity of 152 people, after some adjustments that number was brought to 145. With the recent proposal the number drops to 140 to 142. "It did not detract or reduce capacity at all," he said.

"In a lot of buildings you reconfigure the inside space as you go along," Thursby said. "We have lots of other areas we have reconfigured that we would have to go back to the Legislature for."

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Legislature was unaware of the recent proposed changes to the building that he says was approved to only help expand information technology and consolidate the staff members into one building. A hearing on the changes is scheduled before his committee at 11 a.m. Thursday.

"When you have a new building with 24 cubicles and replace them with the current proposal, that needs to be explained in a public hearing," he said.

But the State Board of Higher Education was under the assumption they had final approval over the building, including any interior change.

An email from Duaine Espegard, president of the SBHE, to Shirvani said he was confused with Kelley's letter and understood the project was a University System project, which had authority over UND.

He said the change does not result in a change to cost or size, indicating no other approval would be necessary.

"The SBHE believes your presence, and that of NDUS staff, on the UND campus in support of IT and other system wide needs is critical," Espegard said in his email to Shirvani. "I am asking you to direct Bob Kelley to proceed with the project post haste, as it has been approved by the Chancellor."

Espegard could not be reached for comment Friday.

Rep. Kylie Oversen, D-Grand Forks, represents the "UND District." She said it is ironic the system believes it has the authority to make the changes while Shirvani was testifying earlier in the week against having the system's authority taken away.

Shirvani testified Wednesday in front of the House Education Committee opposing a bill that would freeze tuition for two years.

Shirvani told the committee, capping tuitions, "erodes constitutional authority" and "takes away necessary flexibility to ensure we meet the needs of our student sin the state for future generations."

Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said the consolidation of the IT staff was for the betterment of the students so Shirvani and the University System will have to make it clear how the proposed office is better for students.

"From what I see, I don't see how that can possibly be the case," he said.

He said the University System should have checked with the Legislature about restructuring the building to see if it complied with the intent of the law.

"At the very least, it violates the spirit of the law. This was an IT building, there was never talk of having ornate office space," he said. "This is something that should have been raised with the Legislature before it was attempted."