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6 former college, university presidents want Shirvani fired, call him 'wrong for North Dakota'

FARGO - In a highly critical letter to state Board of Higher Education members, six former North Dakota college and university presidents today recommended the board fire University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani, calling him "wrong for North Dakota."

Jim Ozbun, president of North Dakota State University from 1988 to 1995, said he and the five other retired presidents who wrote the letter - all of whom still live in the state - wanted to express their concerns to the board and give members an opportunity to interact with them if they so choose.

"I just thought that we had some expertise amongst us that might be helpful, and we wanted to share it," said Ozbun, who lives in Dickinson.

In the letter obtained by Forum News Service, the former presidents note that while tensions between the Board of Higher Education and the Legislature are inevitable, "This time is different from anything we have seen in our 40-plus years."

Specifically, they contend the board has:

- Allowed Shirvani to deprive the board of advice and counsel from its executive leaders.

- Approved a chancellor-recommended termination policy for presidents "that guarantees you will not attract many, if any, highly qualified candidates as new presidents except perhaps those whose first love is North Dakota and who are otherwise financially secure."

- Apparently committed multiple open-meetings violations in the last eight months "at the urging and by arrangement of the chancellor." Those alleged violations are the subject of a board meeting being held this afternoon.

"If legally upheld, these violations undermine the Board's reputation and credibility," the letter states. "In any case, the behaviors about which we have read indicate a level of mistrust and inside dealing that is both unprecedented in our experience and well outside the expectations of North Dakota taxpayers."

The letter also is critical of a three-tier admissions system, the centerpiece of a new strategic plan, saying it's "neither new nor evidence-based" and there are "far more effective strategies for improving student success, most of which were already under way in the NDUS before last summer." Shirvani's three-year contract began July 1.

Last month, the Senate approved adding $854,520 to the University System's budget to buy out Shirvani's remaining contract.

Current university and college presidents haven't spoken publicly about Shirvani's leadership since state lawmakers began calling it into question.

"That's our intent, to provide a voice when they are - and rightly so - they're not in a position to speak out," Ozbun said, adding he didn't personally receive any input from sitting presidents in crafting the letter.

The letter states that none of the current presidents has created trouble for himself or his institution, and that there's "no need to punish good leaders for the sins of their predecessors.

"We expect that North Dakota will soon lose the services of these talented, dedicated men," it states.

Ozbun said he didn't consult any current presidents about whether they're planning on leaving.

"But on the other hand, I think the situation is such that if I was in their shoes, I would be looking for other opportunities, because the situation hasn't been very pleasant for them," he said.

The letter states the situation "is so out of hand that what is arguably the best state higher education governance structure in the country (and certainly the one most used in other states) may be replaced with a bureaucracy or a political machine. The outcome could jeopardize all the institutions' regional accreditation, which has happened twice before under Shirvani's leadership.

"All sides are entrenched in their current positions. This will only get worse unless someone steps forward with principle and courage to put the students, the institutions, and the future of the state first - very soon. We hope that will be you, individually and collectively."

The former presidents recommend the board fire Shirvani "for cause or by negotiation" and then find a new chancellor, "noting that truly effective change agents are also trusting and trustworthy."

Also listed as authors of the letter were Ellen Chaffee, president of Valley City State University from 1993-2008; Garvin Stevens, Williston State College 1967-2000; Kermit Lidstrom, Bismarck State College, 1977-1995; Al Watrel, Dickinson State University, 1977-1994; and Sharon Etemad, Lake Region State College, 1987-2008.

Ozbun said Chaffee emailed the letter to board members. He said he didn't know if she emailed it to anyone else. Chaffee couldn't immediately be reached for comment.