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New NDUS chancellor wants unified voice for higher ed

Hamid Shirvani, right, the newly hired chancellor of North Dakota's university system, speaks March 13 to Robert Vallie, the student representative on North Dakota's Board of Higher Education, in the student union of Bismarck State College in Bismarck, N.D., shortly after the board voted 5-3 to hire Shirvani as chancellor. The chancellor is the chief administrative officer of North Dakota's 11 public colleges. Shirvani will replace William Goetz, who is retiring.

BISMARCK -- The new leader of North Dakota's University System wants to become the voice of higher education in the state.

Hamid "Ham" Shirvani, who officially begins July 1, attended the State Board of Higher Education's two-day retreat this week, where leaders discussed how they want to move forward as they transition to a new chancellor.

The board has been under fire from legislators and others who have challenged the board's handling of the Fighting Sioux nickname, projects involving presidents' houses at University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University, and recently the awarding of dubious degrees at Dickinson State University.

But Shirvani said North Dakota has a great University System with a number of accomplishments.

"I think it's important to say that the system is not broken. It doesn't need fixing," he said.

Shirvani, who is leaving his post as president of California State University Stanislaus to become North Dakota's chancellor, said his goal is to take the University System to the next level. He wants to start by creating clearer communication and protocols.

The system needs to have one voice and be focused on what is best for the whole state, he said.

"We have to work together," he said. "It's not about my college, my school, my district because this is a system."

One initiative Shirvani wants to start is a monthly email to faculty, staff, students and legislators giving updates from the chancellor's office. He hopes this will not only let more people know what the system is working on, but also create a feeling of excitement and inclusion.

He said he knows it's easy for rumors to spread with a new boss starting, so it's important to him for people to hear from him directly.

Shirvani will take on more responsibility of communicating with staff, campuses and the public, reducing the demands on board members.

The intention isn't to put the board in a citadel or cut off access but to organize communication better and create a clearer chain of command, said board President Grant Shaft of Grand Forks, who plans to write a memo discussing this further.

The shift is part of the board's plan to make the new chancellor a CEO who is the clear leader of the system and in charge of day-to-day operations. Board members would focus on policy.

Recently, three board members have quit or decided not to seek another term, citing the time commitment and stress of the position. Shaft said he'd like to see a board schedule that's more manageable.

With board, committee and legislative meetings, board members end up with 20-some obligations a year, he said. With each requiring a full day or two days' time, obligations add up to a couple months' worth of time, Shaft said.

Shirvani suggested meeting every other month for a year or two and then reducing meetings further as the system becomes more organized.

Chancellor Bill Goetz said a lot of business comes up related to capital projects and academic issues, so it would take discipline on the part of the campuses to adjust.

"I'm not saying that you couldn't adjust to it, but it would take some time," said Goetz, who is retiring in August.

Board members also discussed having news conferences to streamline communication and provide more transparency. Shaft said the retreat was a chance to look to the future.

"We have this golden opportunity to go from a very successful system to a real high-performing system, and that's what we're trying to do here," he said.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.