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Chancellor fight has put Higher Ed in a hole

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Any legislator who didn’t come to Bismarck with a bill to reform the Board of Higher Education was simply left out of the conversation this session.

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Of the proposals put on the table, and there must be a half dozen of them, none of them will pass muster.  The voters will stand firm with the present structure, just as they did several years ago on the measure to delete institutions from the constitution.

As far as the new chancellor is concerned, in spite of the unrelenting criticism, I remain unconvinced that we should summarily discharge Hamid Shirvani after just nine months of service.   

We seem to forget the circumstances that brought us to the conclusion that we needed a strong chancellor.

The president of NDSU had run amuck with expansionist visions; both NDSU and UND overspent on building projects, and Dickinson State was giving away degrees.

Lack of supervision was the diagnosis. Since the Board of Higher Education already had its hands full, we looked at the failures in the chancellor’s office and agreed that closer coordination and more accountability was required.

Just about everyone in the state was on the same page. Yes, we needed a stronger central office to bring order to the system. The board took the message seriously and hired a strong hand.

But the downside of such a move meant that more authority for the chancellor left less authority and influence for others. Now the “others” are unhappy.

Nevertheless, it seemed that legislators, administrators and the public welcomed his initial proposals for changing higher education. While some of us had reservations about parts of the plan, we were willing to let the proposals play out until all of the implications were on the table.

Perhaps the chancellor, unfamiliar with North Dakota’s political culture, failed to observe the North Dakota mantra that “everyone gets a say” on all issues. When everyone gets a say, the whole process of change gets stalled.

Shirvani didn’t want his proposals to perish by nitpicking - which we are inclined to do - so he tried to move expeditiously. Unfortunately, style rather than substance became the issue and current critics seem to have forgotten why we wanted a strong chancellor in the first place.

Because of the controversy, legislators are proposing all sorts of schemes for changing the system. Most of the proposals would politicalize higher education by removing the protection in the state constitution. Once out of the constitution, the system would be subject to all sorts of legislative, executive, community and institutional pressures.

This intemperate debate and recrimination has already tainted North Dakota’s reputation in the national academic community. Rep. Bob Skarphol (R-Tioga) appropriately described our behavior as “embarrassing and reprehensible” and suggested that it is “time to stop the cheap theatrics.”

Here’s the hole we have dug for ourselves. If we buyout Shirvani’s contract, recruiting a new chancellor from out-of-state will be virtually impossible. Hamid would be the second chancellor to become a victim of shabby treatment in the last 10 years. Who would come to a state with that kind of track record?

We’ve tried in-state chancellors. They have not been effective reformers for a variety to reasons too complex to detail in this limited space. In short, they have been commissioners, not chancellors.

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Lloyd Omdahl
Omdahl is former North Dakota lieutenant governor and a retired University of North Dakota political science teacher.
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