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State Board of Higher Ed to discuss chancellors contract, addresses concerns raised by lawmakers

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MEDORA -- North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani has given the State Board of Higher Education a proposal to consider his contract, but the specifics are unknown.

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The state board went into a closed executive session Monday during the second and last day of its retreat here to discuss Shirvani's contract.

Board President Duaine Espegard said the issue is executive session material and couldn't comment.

Shirvani said he will speak to the issue Monday.

On Sunday, the state board also approved hiring Minneapolis-based attorney Sara McGrane to provide legal advice regarding the chancellor's contract. McGrane represented North Dakota State University as an assistant attorney general during a 2002 lawsuit over floodwaters that caused damage to the Fargodome.

Shirvani signed on to a three-year contract in July 2012 worth more than $800,000 in February when state lawmakers proposed a plan to buy him out.

Monday's planned executive session for the state board to discuss negotiation tactics over his contract drew criticism and concern from some, including a lawyer for the North Dakota Newspaper Association, who told Forum News Service on Saturday the board can only go into executive session to discuss negotiating strategy or to provide negotiating instructions to its attorney -- only when an open session would have an "adverse fiscal effect."

"But the decision whether to hire or fire someone has to be made in a public meeting," said Jack McDonald. Similarly, he added, "The decision to go for a buyout has to be done in public."

A buyout proposal was one rumor circulating during Sunday's meeting.

Sunday, the state board also underwent a required presentation by Assistant Attorney General Mary Kae Kelsch over state open meeting and record laws.

In April, the attorney general ruled that the board violated open meetings laws by holding events that were not publicized well enough, where a quorum of the board was in attendance, and state board discussions took place.

"There are many boards that do not have to deal with this every day," Kelsch told the board Sunday. "When you are a person that wears two hats, sitting on a board and going back to a business to do what you want, it gets difficult to know which hat to wear."

Kelsch addressed the difference between a regular meeting and special meeting, topics that can be discussed at each one, who must be notified and when the board can move into an executive session.

"When a trust relationship has been broken with a constituency, you may have somebody following you around with shrubbery on their head," Kelsch said.

The board has been in the public eye since January, when the state Legislature began discussing the board's role in higher education.

"That's going to happen to you for a while, so you have to be extra cautious. Eventually it does die down," Kelsch said.

Board member Grant Shaft, an attorney, was the most vocal during the presentation, seeking clarification over the issues for which the the board has been faulted.

Shaft said afterward it was a good discussion.

"It's complicated stuff," he said. "We do, on occasion, receive updates over this stuff, but it was good for the board to know the gray areas. It has given us some clarity."

Espegard agreed.

"I think every couple of years her presentation would be good," he said.

Assessment

A national higher education consultant told the state board Sunday that it has strong financial and structural resources.

"While the rest of the country really faces challenges that are very substantial, you face opportunities," said David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which was created to facilitate resource sharing among university systems in the western United States. "You have resources and can make the case to your constituents."

But Longanecker said he can see where some of the problems stem from with the state board's shift in how the system operates, its "change in agenda," and how it is causing a lot of anxiety and pressure within the system.

"You have various constituencies: some are very anxious for change, and some are anxious with no change," he told them.

Longanecker was brought in to help facilitate discussions during the state board's retreat regarding the duties of the board, conducting board meetings and working and communicating with third parties, such as the media and Legislature.

Longanecker and the board largely spoke to the issues that were raised during the legislative session, which centered on Shirvani's leadership style, system-wide policy changes, and a new information technology building on the University of North Dakota campus.

For instance, to show their consternation, lawmakers proposed five ideas to restructure the state board, convinced the board needs a new leadership model. One resolution prevailed and will be up for a statewide vote on the 2014 ballot to change the nine-member, part-time state board into a three-member, full-time commission.

"One dilemma is the Legislature is helping you manage the system," Longanecker said. "This is not unique; it's almost endemic to smaller states."

Espegard told the board there were a lot of good stories the state board wanted to showcase during the legislative session, but those were overshadowed by the negative stories.

"We're back now. Let's bring the good story out, and let's forget about all that other stuff," he said.

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Mike Nowatzki
Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.
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