Let’s Choose A Third Way In The Battle Between The Chancellor And The University Presidents

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“The board needs to take immediate decisive action to reverse recent policy changes and appoint a chancellor who has a solid proven record of effective trusted and respected leadership,” writes state Senators Tony Grindberg and Karen Krebsbach, as well as Rep. Lois Delmore in the Grand Forks Herald today.

These legislators want North Dakota University Chancellor Hamid Shirvani fired and replaced by someone more subservient to the presidents of the institutions which make up that system. Grindberg himself has been threatening (but has yet to introduce) an amendment to buy out Shirvani’s contract, and it should be no surprise that Grindberg (Fargo), Krebsbach (Minot) and Delmore (Grand Forks) all have in their districts universities (Minot State, UND and NDSU) whoere the presidents have clashed with Shirvani.

In fact, Grindberg was not so long ago an employee of NDSU President Dean Bresciani. As the head of the NDSU Research and Technology “center of excellence” Park Grindberg was allowed to double-dip on his legislative salary and expense a country club membership, gourmet meals and top-shelf booze.

But I digress.

Many of my legislative friends say they’re backing Shirvani in this showdown. They point out that if there is any hope of reform of North Dakota’s off-the-rails university system – which has become notorious for overspending, fraud and lackluster academic outcomes – somebody has to be able to govern the system. Nobody, they point out to me, will be able to govern the system if the university presidents can push out chancellors they don’t like. The university presidents got their way with former Chancellor Robert Potts after he ran afoul of former NDSU President Joe Chapman. Now the university presidents want Shirvani out too.

The question is, who do we side with in this conflict? Do we side with the university presidents who argue that Shirvani’s reforms are capricious, and even vindictive, or do we side with the Chancellor and the State Board of Higher Education who are struggling to govern a university system that has become ungovernable?

How about we side with none of the above?

These ceaseless wars between the universities, the university system and the legislature aren’t serving the taxpayers, nor the students, very well. What we need is fundamental reform to the way the university system is governed. We need a concrete leader in charge of the university system who can’t be undermined by coalitions of university presidents and legislators loyal to them. But we also need a leader for the university system who is accountable to the democratic process, so that his/her governance of the university system is reflective of the taxpayer’s wishes.

The “independence” of the university system must be ended, because it hasn’t served us well, and it must be replaced by leadership from an accountable official with the authority to propose and implement real reforms. Maybe that means putting the university system back under the control of the governor. Maybe that means voters should be electing a chancellor to head the system. What it doesn’t mean is going on as we are now.

The two sides in the chancellor versus university presidents battle are proposing two iterations of the status quo. But if there’s anything that’s clear in any of this, it’s that higher education in North Dakota needs changes. But before we can get change, we need to reform the way the system is governed so that change is possible.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. 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. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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