Shivani Accuses Critics Of Racism, Says University Presidents Don’t Want Change

New Chancellor

In a column for the Grand Forks Herald, Chancellor Hamid Shirvani takes the gloves off in responding to some of his critics.

This is tough medicine a lot of North Dakotans – especially in the political class – aren’t going to want to hear.

BISMARCK — It should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the news that these past several months have been challenging for me and the members of the State Board of Higher Education.

No sooner is one issue or rumor raised in the media than another follows in short order, with still another waiting in the wings.

And no sooner are the complaints answered than a second round begins, reintroducing what had been alleged in the first instance — assuming that if repeated enough, people will begin to believe it to be true.

Among the allegations made against me and/or the board is a baseless litany of misinformation — a new one seemed to mysteriously surface every week during the Legislative session — ranging from negative, downright racist comments about me, laced with harsh criticisms of my leadership style to false rumors about firing staff to exaggerated accusations about rushing policies or plans.

I understand the power of inertia when it comes to change. I also understand that pride in one’s culture can have a myopic effect on what is viewed as acceptable or not.

Shirvani’s fundamental problem in North Dakota is that he is a change agent introduced to a system that doesn’t want to be changed. He is a reformer put in charge of a network of bureaucrats who see no need for reform.

We can quibble about his approach – Shirvani himself has admitted that some of his early moves upon taking his current job were a bit tone deaf – but the desperate need for change in North Dakota’s university system is apparent to anyone who dares to look.

After a legislative session which saw unprecedented budget growth for the state’s universities, the State Board of Higher Education went along with a plan put forward by the university presidents to take even more from students in the form of tuition.

All the public seems interested in is UND hockey, and NDSU football, buying into the misconception that these are profitable programs which bring in revenues for the universities. But it isn’t true. Both programs rely heavily on millions in student fees and university subsidies and, if left on their own, would operate deeply in the red.

All the state’s newspapers seem to care about is the latest economic development deal or research grant coming out of the universities. They ignore very real problems with graduation rates, administrative bloat and run-away costs to both students and taxpayers.

And all the state’s elected leaders – from legislators to the executive branch – seem to care about is keeping the university presidents and the alumni (who control a lot of political money in the state) happy.

Shirvani’s problem – at least in the eyes of his critics – is that he wants a university system that benefits students and the state, not a university system that is benefited by students and the state. He has been tasked, as an outsider in a state which doesn’t like outsiders, with changing the direction of North Dakota’s largest government problem child.

He deserves support in that mission, not political attacks.

I’m beginning to wonder whether or not Shirvani can hold on. The review the State Board of Higher Ed has initiated is, while not entirely inappropriate, seemingly the first nail in his coffin.

If he is pushed out – if he joins former Chancellor Potts as the second university system chancellor in less than a decade sent packing because the university presidents don’t like him – it would be a sad day for North Dakota and the push for higher ed reform.

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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  • ec99

    Good points all. My only disagreement is your consideration of ND higher ed as a “system.” It isn’t. It’s a loose confederation of campuses, all dedicated to getting the most each individually can. Shirvani recognized that and his proposals to create a real system were one of the things that got him into hot water.

    • DelawareBeachHouse


      And you know what would be a good story? An analysis of how an NDSU professor or department, for example, got a grant. What’s the project, whom did they apply to, who else is doing the same work, what political pressure came into play, and so much more. The NDSU ag research grants are pretty straight-forward, but what about the others? Say, the UND drone grants/. Or the space stuff.

      Having read ND newspapers for years, I’ve never seen an in-depth story like that.

      • ec99

        ” I’ve never seen an in-depth story like that.”
        And you never will as long as universities are big advertisers in the papers.

        • Rob

          What I really need to do a story on is the ad budgets for the universities.

          • ec99

            Under Jacobs, the “wall” between the ad office and the newsroom came down faster than the one in Berlin.

    • Rob

      I call it a system because it’s supposed to operate as a system.

      That it doesn’t operate that is central to the problem, as you point out.

      • ec99

        No offense, but you don’t call a bunch of disassembled engine parts a motor. That is precisely what ND higher ed, and what Shirvani was told to fix.

        • Rob

          I can’t argue.

  • DelawareBeachHouse

    Injecting racism into the debate is reprehensible, for both the attackers who might use it and Shirvani who whines. Suck it up, man. Have the courage of your convictions, which from what I can see are on the mark.

    • Rob

      I don’t know, some of the attacks have been pretty awful, and it’s not out of bounds for Shirvani to mention that.

  • kevindf

    What “race” is he?

    • Rob

      I believe he’s of Iranian descent, not that it matters.

      • kevindf

        That’s not a race. He seems to be the same race as those he perceives to be racist.

        • GuestofAnon

          Even so he is no Martin Luther King,jr. Too bad he now considers North Dakota a jail. Good thing he he has that Porsche, that will come in handy for his bail.

          • Rob

            Given the way many in North Dakota have behaved toward him, it would be excusable for him to see the state that wa
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            Even so he is no Martin Luther King,jr. Too bad he now considers North Dakota a jail. Good thing he he has that Porsche, that will come in handy for his bail.

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            GuestofAnon’s comment is in reply to *kevindf*:
            That’s not a race. He seems to be the same race as those he perceives to be racist.

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        • DelawareBeachHouse

          Roxana Saberi (Persian: رکسانا صابری‎) didn’t get much grief, did she? No racism against Persians there.

          • kevindf

            She is celebrated for breaking the law.
            Shirvani is having a pity party.

  • melissapaulik

    I was inclined to feel sympathetic to his side of the story until he pulled the race card. I will agree that ND isn’t exactly sympathetic to outsiders. It took me a good 10 years to get my feet under me and get people to stop treating me like an outsider – and I’m a blue-eyed blonde! Unless he can support those allegations, he sounds like just another guy pulling the race card because he has nothing else in his hand.

  • Drain52

    Ah, the old race card. Shirvani probably has a full pack of ‘em. Just when I was beginning to empathize with him.

  • robertfrost

    Before we all wrap ourselves in Ham’s golden reforms, lets remember his very first proposal was to hire 30 new workers to administer the system, 30 workers not needed before. I’m not against an outsider bringing in outside ideas. But I’d rather the outsider get some boots on the ground for a few months before overhauling the system from California. That model hasn’t worked all that well either.

    There’s a reason this guy has been dubbed “Shah Shirvani”, and “the higher ed pharoah”. He did that to himself. Outsiders stay outsiders when they don’t try to acclimate before throwing the system out. That’s no one’s fault but Shirvani’s.

    • Rob

      Maybe. Shirvani certainly made mistakes upon coming in, and his demand for 30 new FTE’s was among them.

      But let’s admit that the “system” (to the extent that 11 campuses run as independent city-states by pampered, territorial presidents is a “system”) needs to be thrown out.

    • Tim

      I have to disagree with your analysis that these workers weren’t needed. Several of these workers were in an attempt to try to hold the universities accountable by hiring more auditors and compliance people. UND has two auditors, NDSU has one, the NDUS has none – we need a team of auditors with the ability to look into what they need to and not be scared off by the university presidents or alumni with deep pockets or legislators.
      After the scandals at NDSU how many people cried for accountability and when an attempt was made to get this accountability people balked at the proposes.

      Additional staff was indeed needed, probably not that many but the legislature should have understood the need and funded properly .

      • Rob

        I think the NDUS office does need more staff, but it should be pulled from existing positions at the universities.