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Higher ed board plans anonymous surveys to evaluate Shirvani's leadership

North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani, left, answers a question from North Dakota Higher Education Board President Duaine Espegard during the board's meeting in Grand Forks on Thursday. Board member Kari Reichert opened the meeting with questions relating to Shirvani's leadership skills before the board agreed to a motion to conduct an evaluation of the chancellor by the end of June.

GRAND FORKS -- The North Dakota State Board of Higher Education unanimously decided Thursday to conduct a performance evaluation on the chancellor that allows college presidents, staff and students to "speak without fear," according to one member.

The decision for an evaluation came at the end of a tense discussion in Grand Forks after another board member questioned Chancellor Hamid Shirvani's leadership skills and after three months of what Shirvani referred to as daily "personal and professional attacks."

The evaluation would gather responses from each of the 11 presidents in the North Dakota University System, as well as legislators and others, by June 20. All responses would be anonymous, and the evaluation will allow the board to "move forward," board member Janice Hoffarth said during a break.

Shirvani said he has no problem with the concept of a review, but indicated that some would always take issue with him.

"Before, there was no argument about substance, it was my style," he said at a break. "But now it's substance, too. Finally, the reality comes out."

'Key concerns'

At the start of the meeting, board member Kari Reichert requested to add an "executive management" item to the agenda, saying she was surprised it wasn't already added.

"I think we have some key concerns," Reichert said. "Certainly, all of us have received phone calls and emails, and have been contacted. I think we've all seen what's happened and realize that we're sort of -- I feel stuck. I feel like this controversy has only gotten bigger over time."

Claire Holloway, the board's attorney, wanted to make sure it didn't violate open meeting laws, clarifying that it was not a request the board anticipated making when the agenda was first prepared, because if so "it would be considered sort of hiding an agenda topic from the public notice."

Reichert addressed several issues she had with the chancellor, particularly in justifying the "skeletal" system office staffing and the lack of collaboration for the chancellor's overhaul to the education system.

Shirvani championed his Pathways to Student Success plan last year, intended to improve college preparatory work, remedial courses and affordability for adult learners and stand to affect nearly every student in the state. The plan would also tighten admission criteria to research institutions such as UND and regional universities such as Mayville State University.

Reichert also took issue with the chancellor's leadership skills, later saying it was "a really big reason" that many had fled the university system. Hoffarth said 12 of 32 University System staff members no longer held positions in the last year, while the chancellor's office found 10, and board members disagreed over the reasons behind the vacancies. One recent staff member to leave is Joshua Riedy, who was the University System's associate chief information officer and UND's CIO.

"I don't look at these to be everybody running from the ship because everything has gone wrong," said board President Duaine Espegard. "There are some of them who are leaving for opportunity, for a better opportunity, and there are some who retired."

'We have to be objective'

Board member Don Morton said they should respect the search process they'd had and look forward to doing a thorough evaluation of the chancellor.

"There are issues," he said. "Don't mistake that we aren't aware of the issues. We've got to be deliberate -- there's two sides. We have to be objective."

Morton, who also pushed for the evaluation, added that it pays to be deliberate as they look ahead to future searches "that we have a process, we live by the process, we go by the process, but we will have a thorough evaluation."

Hoffarth said she didn't anticipate the process would take long, with 10 members on the board able to send out questions to constituents.

Reichert said she blames herself in part for selecting the chancellor, who has been leading the University System since July. She had brought up her concerns about Shirvani to Espegard as early as February and with the chancellor himself, "at which point I was deemed an outsider, for lack of a better term, and our relationship immediately soured."

"His response was to direct all of my communication through him and not to others, and I find that very disappointing," she said.

As a newer board member who was appointed in August, she feels she's had no real education on the University System. It's just been about crisis management -- they've heard reports of people being yelled at, being asked for affidavits and advised not to talk to certain people, she said.

"I think there is a real cultural problem in the office," she said.