It’s Time For Some University Presidents To Step Down Or Be Fired


Fargo Forum reporter Kyle Potter has an excellent run-down of the “civil war” over higher education in North Dakota. If the story has gotten a little too far down-in-the-weeds for you, that’s a good place to catch up.

The latest revelation in the imbroglio – which isn’t much of a revelation as it was pretty much an open secret – is that state Rep. Bob Skarphol is behind some of the Legislative Council requests for emails. The revelation of Skarphol as the source for some of those requests comes as apologists for the university system go on the offensive.

Their other talking point? The email requests from Legislative Council are oh-so-expensive. According to a NDUS estimate, the requests for emails from Legislative Council will cost around $40,000, or about what it costs for NDSU President Dean Besciani to fly around in the university’s private airplane for a month or so.

Of course, running up the cost on open records requests is a tried-and-true tactic deployed by the universities. I won an open records complaint against North Dakota State University after they tried to charge me $2,000 for some of President Dean Bresciani’s emails. I ultimately got them at no-charge.

But rather than fighting over emails, maybe we should talk about why this fight is happening?

Former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani was the target of a political campaign to push him out because, his critics claim, he was an ineffective and intemperate manager who created friction with his subordinates. Some, including myself, might argue that the friction in question stemmed less from Shirvani’s allegedly abrasive personality than his desire for much-needed reforms opposed by the status quo in the university system, but whatever. Shirvani got his golden parachute, and that’s so much water under the bridge.

The thing is, as my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Gordon was fond of telling me when I got into playground fights, “these things don’t happen in a vacuum.” Which is to say, there are two sides to every story. It takes two to tango.

If Shirvani is guilty of trying to govern a university system with an iron fist, then multiple leaders in that university system are guilty of making it ungovernable.

Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen’s claims that everything is “fantastic” in the university system. This is not a serious statement. Honest observers, up to and including the State Board of Higher Education which continues to at least pay lip service to Shirvani’s proposed reforms, recognize the need for change.

But certain university presidents – among them UND’s Robert Kelly, NDSU’s Dean Besciani, Minot State’s David Fuller and Skogen himself (who also serves as the President of Bismarck State) – have made it clear that they are hostile to that reform. So virulently clear, in fact, that it cost Shirvani his job.

If these men can’t play nice, then they need to go along with Shirvani.

Next year voters will get a chance to vote on a measure referred to the ballot by the legislature eliminating the State Board of Higher Education and replacing it with a new governing structure. This would be a good change, but no governing structure is going to work if the heads of the universities refuse to be governed.

Fuller is already stepping down, and that’s good news, but others should follow him if there is to be any hope ending the in-fighting in the university, not to mention the less-than-stellar fiscal and academic performance of those institutions.

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • The Whistler

    There’s no way that the board of higher education can oversee the university system. After all they have 4 meetings a year and have full time jobs. I don’t even think they are paid for their time.

    When we got a chancellor that wanted to change the status quo the presidents of the university got him fired. They don’t want reform.

    Shavini probably wasn’t the perfect person for the job, but how are we going to get anyone better than him. After all the Board of Higher education has shown they won’t back anyone who makes waves. Shivani’s policy changes had the board’s approval so they should have supported him.

    In fact what immediately preceded Shivani’s termination was his demand that they support him or fire him.

    • Rob

      Shavini probably wasn’t the perfect person for the job, but how are we going to get anyone better than him. After all the Board of Higher education has shown they won’t back anyone who makes waves.


      • Guest

        I thought Shrivani got bought out because he was holding illegal meetings and couldn’t even manage his own staff without a mass exodus, much less manage the leaders of the universities. From the bottom to the top, no one liked working with him other than a few legislators. You can’t govern from a place of corruption, anarchy and no confidence in your management style. Why should anyone else have to step down or be fired for his mistakes? If making waves means forcing your employees to break the law, then I’d like a better boat than this one.

        • Rob

          Shirvani can’t hold illegal meetings of the State Board of Higher Education. He woks for the SBHE. They set their own meetings and agendas, and are responsible for making sure they’re legal.

          As for managing his own staff, that’s exactly the point. The status quo in the university system is resistant to change.

          Change is needed, though, so why are we seeing a mass exodus as a bad thing?

          But let’s stop fighting about Shirvani, and let’s talk about the university presidents who refuse to be governed. They must go.

          • Guest

            You wouldn’t be happy with any solution to your perceived problems in the University System until there were no more universities left. It’s hard to take any of your proposed solutions seriously because you come from a place of extreme bias. I’m not sure you can actually identify real problems anymore. I don’t think you have any clue what a well-functioning university system looks like. Instead, it seems like you’re only able to identify personalities and make this all about them. There are probably some serious problems to take care of, but you wouldn’t have the first clue where to start….. HINT: it’s not in Skogen’s underwear drawer.

          • Rob

            You wouldn’t be happy with any solution to your perceived problems in the University System until there were no more universities left.

            So, you think I want to eliminate higher education entirely?

            I’m sorry, but you’re mistaken. I just want to do it differently. I’d like to see higher education privatized. Short of that, I’d like to see the universities run with an eye toward serving the students, not serving the administrators and their crony capitalist partners.

          • Guest

            I suppose firing the presidents goes a long way toward really helping the students. Do you even listen to what you’re saying? You’re just speaking to hear yourself, but when you actually match your rhetoric up to your solutions, it’s like reasoning with a schizo.

            Help the students by firing the presidents?
            Make the universities serve the students better by privatizing them?

            Where the hell have these solutions worked anywhere ever???

          • Rob

            Yes, help the students by firing the pampered bureaucrats who are more concerned with how many buildings their campus has, and how many private airplanes they get access to, than academic outcomes.

            And are you arguing that private universities don’t serve students well? I guess that’s news to Harvard and Yale.

          • Guest

            How poorly were Harvard and Yale doing before they were privatized and taken away from the mishandling of the state???

            …..And yes, when we fire all the presidents, who are all these people you know that would be great administrators and would focus solely on the students…… I’ll await your list and I’ll assume Joe Chapman is a shoe-in.

          • Rob

            How poorly were Harvard and Yale doing before they were privatized and taken away from the mishandling of the state???

            That’s not really the point. You insinuated that privatizing universities is bad for students. That clearly doesn’t have to be the case.

            And yes, when we fire all the presidents, who are all these people you know that would be great administrators and would focus solely on the students

            This is a fair criticism. Obviously, I’m not going to be in charge of the hiring, and the way things are in the university system now, politics matters a whole hell of a lot more than job performance does.

            If we fire the current crop of bozos, there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t be replaced by new crop of bozos.

          • Guest

            Well if I missed the point, can you give me some example of universities that have been privatized, not founded as private universities that improved greatly after privatization?

            Also, I don’t think that any president of any ND university would ever earn your approval. They’d have to show up with a wrecking ball and a demolition crew on their first day to enjoy your support.

          • The Whistler

            The process has been the opposite and higher education has gotten worse.

          • Guest

            Well Whistler, you must know of at least one example. We’re talking about privatizing the whole system here. We should probably look toward one of the many who took the tried and true route of university privatization. I’m guessing you didn’t reply with a real answer simply because the examples are so numerous and obvious, I shouldn’t even need to ask.

          • The Whistler

            I don’t know that it’s ever been tried.

            It’s time.

          • Guest

            Yeah, I don’t think we’ve ever tried having purely Utopian socialist system of governance.

            Also, you’ve probably never had a chance to be romantic with someone of the same sex.

            It’s time!

          • awfulorv

            The problem, as I see it, is that all the presidents consider themselves to be the CEO of the company, but it is not a company. Though, come to think of it, I did see a advertisement, recently, selling something named FATHEAD, so I might be wrong on that score…

          • The Whistler

            CEO’s have to perform, at least now days they do.

          • Rob

            Harvard was founded by the Massachusetts legislature, though that was in the 17th century.

            And I think the proof of the efficacy of private universities is in the performance of the private universities themselves.

            In the private market, most of ND’s universities wouldn’t survive, because they don’t exist to serve market demand as political demand, mandated as they are in the state constitution.

            Also, I don’t think that any president of any ND university would ever earn your approval.

            You’re free to think whatever you want. I was very skeptical of, and very critical of, Shirvani when he first arrived. I came to appreciate the reforms he was pushing for, and he was hardly suggesting a wrecking ball.

            Maybe painting me as anti-education makes it easier for you to ignore the problems in higher ed I write about, but it’s hardly an intellectually honest way to approach this debate.

          • Guest

            You certainly aren’t pro-education, and if you are pro-education, please link to just one pro-education article on SAB. I’ve asked you to do this before, but it has never happened.

            You are the one who is being intellectually dishonest.

            1.First you say: “let’s stop fighting about Shrivani” let’s talk about the presidents and their wrongdoing.
            2.Then you say that the presidents probably couldn’t meet your satisfaction regardless and would simply be replaced by a new round of bozos, so let’s talk about focusing on the students instead.
            3.Then you say that the students don’t really matter because it’s all politics, crony capitalism and the universities are only there to line the administrators’ pockets so let’s just talk about privatization.
            4.Then you say that privatization really wasn’t what you meant, but you actually meant to talk about were universities that have been private for their entire existence so let’s get back to talking about Shrivani and how great his proposed reforms were.

            You’ve talked us in a circle and we’re back to talking about Shrivani again because everytime I make a good point, you change the subject and move the goal posts.

            I think I’ve illustrated pretty clearly above your staunch anti-education approach. If you truly are not anti-education, then discussing this topic with you is like talking to a very nimble brick.

        • The Whistler

          I thought Shrivani got bought out because he was holding illegal meetings

          Think about it. Meetings of staff aren’t required to be open. But the ruling bodies whether it be a school board, city council or the board of higher education have to comply with the open meeting laws.

          So Shirvani couldn’t hold an illegal closed meeting because he doesn’t control the meetings of the board.

          couldn’t even manage his own staff without a mass exodus,

          Kelley replaced the leadership of UND and brought his own people in. He even promoted the guy that ran the search committee to be one of his go to guys.

          The search committee was supposed to find 3 qualified candidates for the Board of Higher Ed to review. What he did was put up Kelley and Kelley alone. The Board hired him, big mistake, and then Kelley promoted the guy that put him up there.

  • zipity

    Let’s do that.
    Of course, it will entail spending hundreds of thousands of dollars from taxpayers to buy out the contracts for them, and then of course spending hundreds of thousands additional taxpayer dollars to consultants to find out “why this happened” and to find the new Presidents, who will then be showered with hundreds of thousands more in taxpayers dollars, because, you know, we want the “best” and all….
    F**ked if you do, F**cked if you don’t.

    • Rob

      One would hope that we could send them packing, and then disengage from this idea that we have to lavish money on the latest higher ed “rock star” and hire some people from North Dakota with an interest in running the universities in the best interests of the students and the taxpayers.

      • RobertD

        I believe a mix of individuals both inside and outside the state can be identified and hired that would help develop a university system whose core mission is to educate students and advance the state. It cannot be done as long as the system does not have a strong CEO and support of the Governor and legislature. The Governor’s office was actively engaged in removing Potts and Shirvani.

        There are some qualified individuals within ND to serve and some that can be attracted by ideas and serving students that are not all about how much they are paid.

  • ec99

    In the view of the entrenched university administrators, no one will be the perfect person for the job. As I said elsewhere, they love the top-down structure of their schools, because they are on top. What they don’t want is someone above them. This is not only true for the Shirvani case; let’s not forget another outsider suffered the exact same fate. When it came to a choice between Chapman the conman and his boss Potts, SBHE people and Fargo legislators went with the former. And this is another problem: legislators will defend their campuses and their presidents, because they mean economic impact.. The last thing the small schools wanted was to be turned into junior colleges responsible to remedial education The last thing UND and NDSU wanted to be was elite institutions with real admission standards, the concomitant drop in enrollment, and less tuition revenue. You not only need to get rid of presidents and the SBHE, you have to get legislators’ snouts out too. But for a state which hates any change, the enormous overhaul proposed for higher ed is not likely.

  • Rick Olson

    I’ve always wondered why there is such anger and disdain for higher education in this discussion group? I’m sure many of the participants in these threads are products of the North Dakota Higher Education System and as alumni, should be completely supportive of their alma maters.

    • ec99

      Offhand I’d say being alumni does not mean blanket approval. I know several grads of Penn St who cut the school off completely after the pedophile scandal. Perhaps their education taught them to think critically and not engage in a rah-rah mindset.

    • Flyby_Knight

      I’m an alumnus of NDSU. I am not “completely supportive” of the current administration, nor was I of President Chapman’s.

      This is because NDSU taught me critical thinking skills (among other things) and the ability to recognize poor behavior and empire-building when I see it.

    • zipity

      Hmmm. It is a riddle, is it not?
      Perhaps it has something to do with this being by and large a conservative/libertarian leaning blog, and our Universities and Colleges throughout the country, (much less ND) are unapologetic factories employing Far Left Liberal Administrators and faculty, who believe their mission is to inculcate their students with their strident anti-America pro-One World, Far Left, anti-conservative, politically correct dogma.
      At least that’s one possibility.
      There could be more.

      • Rob

        Actually, to me it’s not really the ideology of the campuses that bothers me. Well, ok, yes it does a little, but I’m not afraid of a competition of ideas.

        What bothers me is that we treat colleges like factories pumping out workers. We’ve created an assembly line mentality for something that cannot be an assembly line.

        And it’s been done because that’s the best way to funnel lots and lots of money into the universities themselves.

        We were better off when higher ed, liberal or conservative or whatever, was a private affair.

        • zipity

          Sorry, but it’s not a “competition of ideas” when conservative speakers and events are shouted down or not allowed on campus at all, which are sadly extremely common occurrence’s across this once great country today.

          • Rob

            I don’t disagree, and all the more reason to privatize the universities.

    • Jonesy

      As alumni, we are and should be concerned with the waste and mismanagement at the universities and colleges. Our tuition, fees, and donated moneys have been and are being squandered by people looking to pad their resumes before they move on to something bigger and better.

      • ec99

        Good point. Universities habitually skim 20-25% off all monetary donations in the name of “administrative expense.” That’s what seems to have gotten UND a $10 million alumni center. If I were to donate, I’d send the check directly to the program involved, and avoid the high priced alumni association middleman.

        • Rick Olson

          Then UND must have skimmed a cool $37.5 million for administrative expenses when the late Ralph Engelstad handed over some $150 million (initial $100 million gift and then covering cost overruns) when Ralph Engelstad Arena was built.

          • ec99

            Check your history. Ralph gave no money to UND to build the arena; he built it himself. The original promise was $50 million for a building and $50 million for academics. He backed out of that; for Ralph UND existed for a hockey team, not students. If he had given cash to UND, it would be the owner of the place, not REA Enterprises. Actually, he did UND a favor; it would have to redirect millions from the general budget for the upkeep of the place. Money which would not go to academics.

        • Jonesy

          I’m can’t say that none of that money was used to pay for the new alumni center, but I do know that a large donation ($4 million) came from the Goreckis, which is how the building got its name.

          • ec99

            Which means $6 million came from elsewhere. Have you noticed over the years that UND cries poverty to the Legislature every biennium, yet builds an $18 million parking ramp (with a twin slated for construction across Columbia), an alumni center, and now an indoor practice facility? Not to mention a student-funded health center? Yet 52% of its undergraduates take 6 years to get out because there aren’t enough faculty to offer courses?

      • Rick Olson

        You won’t get an argument out of me on that. Unfortunately, until such time as higher education is completely stripped of its constitutional protection as a separate fourth branch of government in North Dakota; I’m afraid all of that is bound to continue. Real reform won’t happen until higher education is stripped of its cherished and jealously defended and guarded constitutional protection.

        • Rob

          But we can’t just punt because the universities are constitutionally protected.

          You seem to want to just say that the status quo is the law of the land, so shut up.

          The status quo isn’t working. We need to change the status quo.

          • Rick Olson

            Again, no argument from me about that. I would gladly sign a petition for a constitutional amendment to strip higher education of its protection.

    • Ratbite

      Sorry Rick but the high ed institution I attended years ago screwed me out of a double major because a coach moves some classes,at the last minute, to a different time & they accused me of not planning adequately. It’ll be a cold day in July before I donate to my almamater. Also I want to know why no one that graduates from our “fanastic”institutions of higher learning is ever hired for one of the state’s plum leadership position such as UND or NDSU president. Heck seems like the state is always going out of state to fill jobs. If our institutions were doing such a “fantastic job why would the state have to look elsewhere for qualified employees & leaders??

      • ec99

        If you’re talking about presidents, the last one I know would be Tom Clifford, who was not only Dean of the Business School at the time, but also an alumnus. There may have others since then at other universities, but I’m not aware of them.

  • awfulorv

    Might as well appoint my ten month old Grandson Chancellor. At least he wouldn’t be embarrased when he’s asked to roll over, gurgle, and burp. No fancy offices, or houses either, a kiddie corral will do just fine…

    • Rob

      To be fair to Chancellor Skogen, I don’t think he’s at all embarrassed to give his fellow presidents the glowing, wholly uncritical evaluations he thinks they deserve.

      • ec99

        I have a hunch that under Shirvani’s plan, BSU was to become one of the remedial schools.

  • Bruce Wold

    The one good aspect of Shirvanis entrance and exit in this mess is the shedding of light on this fiasco of a so called system.