Minot State University president demands apology from board

BOTTINEAU The State Board of Higher Education placed embattled North Dakota University System Chancellor Hamid Shirvani on administrative leave Thursday and appointed Bismarck State College president Larry Skogen as interim acting chancellor.

The board took action days after Shirvani’s negative performance evaluations of three university presidents were released to the media and posted to a Fargo Forum blog and the Say Anything blog, before presidents had a chance to see them or the board had approved them.

On Thursday, Minot State University President David Fuller, who was so furious his voice was shaking, demanded an apology and asked that the performance evaluation be expunged from his record.

“I don’t want to have anything to do with Shirvani floating around in my record,” said Fuller, who said he returned from vacation early this week to discover his personnel evaluation had been posted on the Internet.

Shirvani’s performance evaluations of the university system presidents were released Monday following an open records request from The Fargo Forum last week. The Say Anything Blog also submitted a request for the evaluations. According to NDUS system personnel, Shirvani’s office released the personnel evaluations on Monday after Shirvani indicated he had completed the evaluations and they could be released. At the board of higher education meeting Thursday in Bottineau, Fuller and other presidents disputed that the evaluations were open records because they had not been seen or signed by the presidents or approved by the board. However, NDUS counsel Claire Holloway said at the meeting that the state’s open records law applied to the evaluations. Skogen later researched the open records law and confirmed that it applies to drafts and work products and the records were legally released.

Shirvani gave negative evaluations of Fuller as well as of University of North Dakota president Robert Kelley and North Dakota State University president Dean Bresciani. Shirvani recommended against a salary increase for Fuller and Kelley and recommended outside reviews of Kelley and Bresciani.

Fuller questioned why Shirvani was permitted to conduct the evaluations, given the circumstances. The board voted to buy out Shirvani’s contract last month, following months of criticism from various quarters about Shirvani’s management style. Fuller told the board that Shirvani has spent much of the year discrediting the presidents and their institutions. Fuller said Shirvani’s performance evaluation of him was “vindictive.”

“For some reason, he went after me and Bob and Dean and now it’s all over the country,” said Fuller, who said Shirvani’s actions have resulted in both personal and professional damage to him and to others on the Minot State University campus.

Several board of higher education members echoed Fuller’s outrage.

“We are talking about people’s careers here,” said board member Kari Reichert, an attorney from Bismarck. “The lawyer in me goes … huh? Does this look a little like retaliation?”

Board of higher education member Terry Hjelmstad, a retired public school administrator from Minot, said he was “appalled and offended” when he learned that the performance evaluations had been published on an Internet blog and called what Shirvani wrote in the negative evaluations both “immoral” and “vindictive.”

“These are not evaluations,” said Hjelmstad. “All they are is observations.” Hjelmstad said if he had gone about doing an evaluation in such a way when he was an administrator, he would have been fired and gone the next day.

Several board members said Shirvani failed to complete the standard evaluation process, which would have involved personal interviews with the presidents and permitting them to review the draft evaluations before submitting them to the board. Reichert said that, in the university system, evaluations have been a continuing process and that nothing in them should come as a surprise to the person being evaluated.

Board of higher education president Duaine Espegard was at first reluctant to dismiss everything Shirvani had done with the evaluations. In his first motion, he suggested that new acting chancellor Skogen “finish the process” and then present the completed performance evaluations to the board.

“I don’t care if the acting chancellor rewrites (them) after he hears the other side,” said Espegard, but thought it was important for the university system to move on. He wanted to avoid further discussion of Shirvani’s tenure in office.

Kirsten Diederich, board vice president, said she couldn’t agree entirely with Espegard’s position, since the reputations of the university presidents has been damaged by the posting of the negative performance evaluations online.

Skogen said he is willing to follow the board’s directives and relishes the opportunity to try to fix the mess, though for some injuries, there may be no remedy. He said healing is necessary for the university system.

Ultimately, the board passed a motion rejecting Shirvani’s performance evaluations and offered apologies to the presidents for any personal and professional damage done to them. The motion calls the language Shirvani used in some of the evaluations “repugnant, offensive and unprofessional.” The board directed Skogen to conduct performance evaluations of the presidents as he sees fit.

Board member Grant Shaft, an attorney from Grand Forks, voted in favor of the motion, but said he saw some value in the draft evaluations Shirvani had conducted. He said there are salient points in the drafts as to how individual presidents are meeting the goals set by the board of higher education. He said he hopes Skogen’s evaluations will address those points. Past evaluations prior to this year were not terribly useful to the board, said Shaft, since they did little more than say “all is well” and recommend a salary increase for the presidents.

Espegard said he would not approve any salary increases or contract information at Thursday’s meeting, but would wait until after Skogen has completed the evaluation process and submitted the evaluations to the board.

Board member Kathleen Neset, from Tioga, voted against the amended motion; the other board members present voted in favor of it.

Fuller and other university system presidents present at the meeting expressed their support for Skogen, the new acting interim chancellor. Fuller said Skogen works well with people and has good communication skills. Skogen will be acting interim chancellor for about 60 days, which will give the board time to find a more permanent acting chancellor, who is expected to be in the position for up to two years.

North Dakota voters will decide in November 2014 whether to replace the board of higher education with a three-member panel appointed by the governor.