From Setback to Success: The Next Phase of Higher Education in North Dakota

The sudden buyout of the Chancellor of Higher Education's contract is a really unfortunate development in North Dakota life. I only met Ham Shirvani once and I found him really impressive. From what little I have seen at first hand, and from what I have heard from trusted insiders, I get that his bedside manner left a little to be desired. Given all that has passed, all that has been alleged, it is perhaps best at this point for us all to conclude generously that the relationship between Dr. Shirvani and the educational and political leaders of North Dakota was just not a good fit. My sense is that the Chancellor was just as bewildered by us as we have been by him. I hate to see a man of his achievement and gifts depart under a cloud.

It was a very expensive mistake for North Dakota. I'm a taxpayer who does not begrudge any of the money taken from my pocket for education—pre-school, Head Start, K-12, school lunch programs, international exchange programs, technology innovations. There is nothing more important in a civil society than educating our children, each according to his or her best learning style, each up to her or his capacity. I'm very happy to pay my share. But I do begrudge the idea of spending the best part of a million dollars to get rid of a servant of the state. Tossing that kind of money around should be unthinkable, and, for most of North Dakota history, it would simply have been impossible. It is a sign of the ways in which the carbon lottery has corrupted our sense of value that we can write that gargantuan check with a shrug. I believe Dr. Shirvani is entitled to whatever exit compensation his contract specifies, of course, but if I were in a marriage I could only get out of by giving my spouse a million dollars of walking around money, I'd learn to appreciate her tuna hotdish and her dumb cousin Fred.

Just let me be chancellor for six weeks. I'm sure to screw things up much more quickly and obviously, and I'll gladly take my banishment for just $650,000!

Shirvani's departure not just an expensive, but a costly setback to higher education in North Dakota. Because of the turmoil during the tenure of recent chancellorships here—Robert Potts, Bill Goetz, Ham Shirvani—the 63rd North Dakota legislature voted to let the people of North Dakota decide in November 2014 whether they want to abolish the State Board of Higher Education altogether, and replace it with a three member commission appointed by the Governor. In my opinion, that would be a terrible mistake. We should fix the problems of the Board of Higher Education, not dissolve it. The Board was created in the mid twentieth century to protect higher education from the meddling hands of governors and legislators. We need a Board that is quasi-independent of the political process, just as we need a quasi-independent Federal Reserve Board to protect our money supply from naked political manipulation.

Even if Shirvani had been a sweet-tempered and understated chancellor, he would have had an extremely difficult time of it, because he was brought in to bring a new kind of order to higher education to North Dakota, to control—rather than be controlled by—strong university presidents like former NDSU president Joe Chapman, and to figure out how to bring eleven independent and self-serving colleges and universities into an orderly and efficient planetary system. That's a very tall order, a minefield to negotiate under the best of circumstances, like dragging the petty fiefdoms and principalities of central Europe into something called the nation of Germany. Chancellor Shirvani never developed the trust and credibility he would have needed to whip the system into shape. It would be a great mistake to decide it was all his fault.

So now what? The urgent imperative is to name an interim chancellor who enjoys widespread trust, a true North Dakotan (born and educated) who is dynamic without being narcissistic, a superb listener who retains a strong independence of thought, a leader who is forceful without being overbearing, someone who knows how to get along with the leaders of North Dakota, including the more colorful and strong-minded members of the legislature. We need a man or woman who has his ear to the future of higher education in America and the world, a pragmatic innovator who is not afraid to think outside of the box, but who understands the pressures and constraints that make sudden or wild changes impossible. We need someone who will work in open cooperation with the members of the State Board, but stand up to them with genial firmness when necessary, someone who is more interested in education than in empire building or personal advancement, someone who genuinely respects the presidents of our colleges and universities and does not regard them as his subordinates, but as dedicated co-professionals. We need someone who will bring a new level of transparency to higher education, and work closely with the legislature to address the issue of spiraling cost in higher ed. We need someone who knows how to laugh at himself.

This is a time of revolution in higher education. Thomas Friedman's flat world means that any pro-active person can get access to the best educational opportunities around the globe without getting out of her or his pajamas. The Information Revolution means that everyone has access to oceans of knowledge 24 hours a day, free—literally in the palm of one's hand. Higher education is not going to remain a process of knowledge dumping much longer—the timeworn system in which the Professor who has knowledge places it into the hands of the Student, who seeks knowledge. That made sense in the Middle Ages when books were literally chained to the library wall. It makes little sense in the Age of Infinite Access and Information. Professors are going to have to become knowledge coaches rather than knowledge providers, and even someone "graduating" from Bismarck State College or Mayville State is routinely going to take courses from MIT, the Sorbonne, Stanford, Oxford, or Arkansas State, and listen to lectures by the best scholars in the world in a breathtaking range of new delivery systems. Traditional degree-seeking may in some respects give way to a much broader system of learning modules and skill certification. The local university (Minot State, for example) is only going to survive if it embraces the brave new world of educational possibilities. Any institution that merely hopes that a bunch of students will just show up in the fall is going to be as much a fossil as the Triceratops. We need a chancellor who understands where things are headed, and wants to make the best of it for our institutions.

The new chancellor (and can we stop calling this person a chancellor—geez, no wonder the job goes to their heads!) should begin by scheduling town hall meetings at every college town in the state, and then ten non-college towns, to listen, listen, listen.

And fight with all of his might to persuade the voters of North Dakota to retain the Board of Higher Education come November 2014.

The image of the library is from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.