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Higher ed board to discuss Shirvani's contract in private

MEDORA -- The State Board of Higher Education will meet here behind closed doors Monday to discuss the contract of Chancellor Hamid Shirvani.

But North Dakota University System spokeswoman Linda Donlin said that executive session is a regular part of the board's two-day annual retreat, which this year also will include two training sessions.

Shirvani began his term as the system's top official July 1 with a three-year contract that will expire June 30, 2015.

His tenure, not yet a year long, has sparked criticism. For instance, the student group representing the state's 11 public campuses approved a "no confidence" resolution about Shirvani, and some lawmakers tried -- but failed -- to add money to the higher education budget to pay for a buyout of the chancellor's contract.

In explaining the discussion planned about Shirvani's contract, Donlin cited a board policy that says the board will annually evaluate the chancellor's job performance and may choose to extend the contract for a term of up to three years. The board also has the option of not extending the contract or could give notice that the current contract will not be renewed once it expires.

Donlin said the main reason to go into executive session -- meaning the meeting is closed to the public and media -- is to allow the board members to review the current contract and fully discuss what they'd like to do without the chancellor in the room.

"If it has anything to do with the financial things in the contract, that's one of the reasons it needs to be executive session so that Ham obviously can't be in there and listen while they're talking about their negotiating strategy," she said.

Donlin said the board is still determining how it wants to complete the required annual evaluation of the chancellor, which must be done by July 1.

She said that evaluation likely will come up for discussion at the board's next regular meeting June 20 in Bottineau.

At a May 9 meeting, the board voted to allow campus presidents, legislators and students to contribute candid assessments as part of an evaluation of Shirvani.

The agenda for the two-day annual retreat, which kicks off at 8 a.m. Sunday and concludes Monday, also includes a full day of "board training and discussion" on Sunday led by Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education President David Longanecker.

Training topics include conflicts of interest, conducting board meetings, the roles and responsibilities of the board and the chancellor, campus presidents and staff, protocols for working with the chancellor and presidents, lines of communication and "working and communicating with third parties" such as the Legislature and media.

But board member Kari Reichert said there's another important third party that should be considered during this retreat -- the public, especially with a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November 2014 that would eliminate the board and chancellor's office and replace higher education governance with a three-member commission appointed by the governor.

"We're on the ballot in 17 months, and so we need to talk about how we restore some of the credibility that I think has been lost and how we're going to do that," she said.

Board members will get comprehensive training Monday on how to comply with North Dakota's open meeting laws, a requirement ordered by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in a May 3 opinion that found the board was engaging in "pervasive" violations of open meetings law.

Two employees from Stenehjem's office will lead that training.

Reichert said the board needs a full discussion of how it can rebuild the trust of the state and lawmakers after months of controversy and questions over the leadership of the system. But she said there also needs to be time for board members to build a relationship and get on the same page to work toward these goals.

"To me, it's culture," she said. "What kind of a culture do we want to foster? What sort of environment do we want to have in the University System? I have concerns about it right now."

Vice President Kirsten Diederich, who will take over as the new president July 1, said she hopes the meetings will allow the eight-member board to get back to its purpose of supporting the state's colleges and universities.

"I'm hoping that the board can get back to board business, and I think in order to do that, we have to revisit what our mission is and heal some wounds so that we can move forward and be a strong, unified board," she said.