A Fargo lawmaker is proposing an amendment to the higher education appropriations bill that would offer a buyout of the North Dakota University System chancellor’s contract.
The proposal from Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, announced Tuesday morning, drew stern opposition from the president of the state Board of Higher Education, mixed reviews from legislators and left Chancellor Hamid Shirvani puzzled as to the reason for its introduction.
Grindberg’s amendment would provide funding to the state Board of Higher Education to buy out Shirvani’s contract. An exact figure wasn’t available Tuesday, but the estimated cost would be in the neighborhood of $600,000.
The amendment, which Grindberg said is still being drafted, would be included in Senate Bill 2003, the state higher education budget. Grindberg is a co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“In my 20 years, I’ve never experienced such strong widespread opinions of questionable leadership,” Grindberg said. “North Dakota deserves a respected leader.”
Grindberg said Shirvani has exhibited what he called erratic leadership since before he officially took over as chancellor in July 2012. He cited Shirvani’s proposed overhaul of the state’s higher education system, which would tighten admission standards. Grindberg also referred to the proposal for hiring 30 new University System staff members.
Most recently, Grindberg said he was upset with last week’s news of office space for the chancellor on the University of North Dakota campus.
At issue were proposed changes to the joint information technology building on the UND campus. The joint IT building would be used by UND and the university system. A hearing was scheduled to discuss amendments to the floor plan of the facility to create an office for the chancellor. The question is whether or not the changes are such that they require legislative approval.
Duaine Espegard, president of the state Board of Higher Education, said the plan doesn’t require legislative approval since it doesn’t create a change in the use of the building.
Espegard said the UND issue was blown out of proportion and that the changes in the building would displace no IT staff. The space is for Shirvani when he is visiting campuses, something the board is directing him to do.
Espegard said proposing to buy out Shirvani’s contract after being on the job for only seven months is premature.
“The board is unequivocally and wholeheartedly in support of Chancellor Shirvani,” Espegard said.
Even if the Legislature were to pass the amendment, Espegard said, he didn’t see the board taking any action to buy out the contract.
Shirvani expressed surprise that Grindberg would propose the amendment to SB2003.
“I’m doing exactly what the state Board of Higher Education expects me to do. I just don’t understand where Sen. Grindberg is coming from,” Shirvani said. “This is really uncalled for and I don’t appreciate it.”
About the UND building, the chancellor said the space where the proposed office would go includes office and conference room space that all employees would have access to. Shirvani said he was directed to travel and spend time on campuses across the state, which he plans on doing.
“I’m quite disappointed. Certain people don’t want any changes and they’re looking for every little thing they can and blow it out of proportion … trying to discredit me,” Shirvani said.
Sen. Ron Carlisle, R-Bismarck, said he believes there’s a disconnect between the chancellor and Board of Higher Education when it comes to dealing with the Legislature. Carlisle said he’d likely support the amendment to SB2003.
“The Board of Higher Ed is the problem,” Carlisle said. “My sense is … I don’t think it’s going to change.”
Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, was quick to call the amendment “irresponsible.” Skarphol is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Education and Environment Division.
“It’s a power play,” Skarphol said.
House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said he didn’t have much to say on the proposed amendment.
“The Senate has obviously decided to make an issue of it. We’ll be watching it with a great deal of interest,” Carlson said.
Skarphol said it’s an attempt to pit the goals and vision of the state Board of Higher Education and the chancellor against the traditional views of legislators about what higher education should be. Skarphol said the actions of Shirvani since being hired don’t warrant Grindberg’s proposed amendment.
“I believe the board has acted appropriately and the chancellor has not acted inappropriately,” Skarphol said. “This (proposed amendment) is inexcusable.”