GRAND FORKS — State Sen. Ray Holmberg remembers when the relationship between the North Dakota University System and the Legislature was more tenuous.

Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, a longtime member of the Legislature and leader of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says that around 2013, the relationship was especially fractured.

“The relationship was, shall we say, somewhat rocky,” Holmberg recently told Forum News Service. “And it had to do with the perception that they were spending too much money and they weren’t doing a good job.”

Back then, NDUS Chancellor Hamid Shirvani, hired in the summer of 2012, was in the midst of a controversial tenure at the head of the department. Shirvani, it was rumored, sought the ability to hire and fire presidents on his own; lawmakers did not want to grant that power, Holmberg said.

After 11 months, Shirvani effectively was fired when his contract was bought out by the board.

Meanwhile, the Legislature’s relationship with the office had deteriorated. At one point during the 2015 legislative session, an amendment was meant to be included in the higher education budget requiring that the system’s chief financial officer be fired. The amendment ultimately failed, but the CFO left later that year anyway.

At the same time, the Legislature, during an era of cutting costs, made massive cuts to the system office. Some of those cuts came as certain offices, including the system and campus lawyers and auditors, were moved away from the NDUS budget. In total, the system office saw about $2 million moved off of its ledger.

Though things have improved with the North Dakota University System office since the days of Shirvani, Holmberg notes that the Legislature has never restored the funding. And, he said, there is still a sense among legislators that the office receives too much money. Additionally, there is a sense, whether real or not, that the chancellor still has too much power, Holmberg said.

The NDUS office this year is operating on an overall budget of about $114 million. It comes in slightly higher than previous years, but is well below its peak biennium in 2013-15, when the office received $155 million. It’s also considerably higher than the 2001-03 biennium — the latest year data is available — when the system received about $58 million.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story, says Tammy Dolan, vice chancellor of administrative affairs/chief financial officer.

For example: Dolan notes that although records show the NDUS office received more than $114 million in appropriations this biennium, only about $8 million — less than 10% of the total money — goes directly to the system office. Dolan notes that the percentage is even smaller when looking at total appropriations for the entire system, including campuses.

The remaining money — well over $100 million — goes toward student scholarships and grant programs, as well as toward system projects, such as Core Technology Services, among others.

In the 2019-21 appropriations, about $60 million is slated to go to student scholarships and system grant projects, including $23.9 million for the Student Financial Assistance Grants and $9.4 million for North Dakota Challenge Grants. Most of these programs didn’t exist in the early days of the NDUS, including in the 2001-03 biennium.

The chancellor’s power and the size of the office’s budget are both misconstrued, Chancellor Mark Hagerott said

Hagerott says that considering the size and mission of the office, its funding is appropriate.

Hagerott points to the university system’s policies and procedures, showing that the State Board of Higher Education has an “enormous scope of action.” That scope is the culmination of decades of changes to higher education since before the State Board of Higher Education began in the 1930s.

And the board — not the chancellor himself — retains the real power, Hagerott stresses.

“I can’t hire or fire a single president, they’re the ones that do that. I write up evaluations and we track metrics,” he said. “But the board is the one that has all that power. … People who say the chancellor has all this power, they need to read the policies and procedures (to understand) that it really rests with the board.”

Tweaks have been made to the position, however. The SBHE has taken steps in recent years to curtail the chancellor’s power; for example, the chancellor will not, as chancellors have done in the past, negotiate the contract for the next UND president. The contract instead will be negotiated by the board and its chair.

It’s a step, said Holmberg, who also offers a suggestion: If the board wants to demonstrate that its members “run the show,” then he suggests that when hiring presidents, the chancellor should not be allowed to participate in executive sessions.

“(The chancellor is) not hiring them,” Holmberg said of university presidents. “He has no vote. He should not be able to influence them in the room. That would demonstrate to me that the board is running the show.”

Reached Wednesday, Hagerott reiterated that only the State Board of Higher Education has the power to hire and fire presidents and chancellors. He also noted he is not a voting member of presidential search committees, but instead is just an ex-officio.

Presidential searches — there are currently three searches underway in North Dakota — are partially conducted through the system office, Hagerott said. Essentially, the office acts as a coordinator for the process.

Hagerott said there may be some tension, which has been present at times throughout the system history, between local control and a state-level system that is looking out for the interests of North Dakota as a whole.

“There’s this tension that each of the colleges is in a town and in a community, but then you have a state board that says ‘we’re the ones that hire and transition the presidents,’” he said, pointing back to higher education history when local communities asked for help from a coordinating type body.

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