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Published March 13, 2012, 07:08 PM

Shirvani Hired as New ND University Chancellor

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Hamid Shirvani, president of a state university in central California, was named Tuesday as the new chancellor of North Dakota's university system, where he will be the top administrator of 11 public colleges.

By: Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Hamid Shirvani, president of a state university in central California, was named Tuesday as the new chancellor of North Dakota's university system, where he will be the top administrator of 11 public colleges.

North Dakota's Board of Higher Education voted 5-3 to hire Shirvani late Tuesday after board members interviewed four finalists for the job. The three dissenters favored Marshall Hill, a Nebraska higher education administrator.

Grant Shaft, the board's president, said Shirvani and Hill presented "two fairly stark choices" to the board.

Shirvani, 61, who is an architect by training, is viewed as a strong leader, a potential "rock star and a visionary" who will be willing to shake up North Dakota's university system, Shaft said. Hill was considered a more conventional option, the board's president said.

North Dakota officials said Shirvani undertook some difficult budget decisions in California that prompted a faculty vote of no confidence about his leadership.

Shirvani, in an interview, said he "wouldn't consider myself a maverick."

"I want to do the right things, and I'm going to do it as consultatively as possible and as humanely as possible, but change is not something that is comfortable to a lot of people," he said. "In order to improve a system, in order to move forward, there has to be some changes made."

Robert Vallie, the Board of Higher Education's student member, opposed the hiring, saying he feared Shirvani would be viewed as a polarizing figure.

"Certainly Shirvani has the ability to come in, shake things up," Vallie said. He described Hill as "an individual who, in his own unique way, brings enthusiasm, brings passion into higher education."

Shirvani's pay and the length of his contract will be negotiated later. He will be paid between $340,000 and $350,000 annually, Shaft said.

The larger figure is the top of the job's advertised salary range, and Shirvani will be paid more than Robert Kelley, the president of the University of North Dakota and the system's highest-paid campus administrator, Shaft said. Kelley's salary is now $330,158 annually, and it is likely to be raised to about $340,000 on July 1, Shaft said.

Shirvani will succeed William Goetz, who is retiring in August. The North Dakota university system has six four-year and five two-year colleges, an operating budget of $1.2 billion for two years, and about 49,000 students.

Shirvani, Hill, state Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, and Warren Wray, an interim chancellor of the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, were the finalists for the position. After finishing their interviews late Tuesday, board members voted to drop Flakoll and Wray as candidates.

Shirvani is coming into a system that has been roiled by a long-running controversy about the University of North Dakota's Fighting Sioux nickname and efforts by its supporters to make sure it is kept despite the NCAA's belief that it is offensive to American Indians.

Shirvani also must grapple with the aftermath of a degree-awarding scandal at Dickinson State University. A recent audit showed almost 600 Chinese students at the university were awarded four-year degrees without completing the required course work.

Shirvani is an Iranian by birth and an American citizen whose family left Iran when he was a youngster to escape religious persecution. He described himself as a devout Roman Catholic and said he prefers to be called Ham, rather than Hamid.

He holds a master's degree from Harvard and a doctorate from Princeton. He has been a teacher or administrator at universities in Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, Colorado, Massachusetts and California.

Since 2005, he has been president of California State University, Stanislaus, which is located in Turlock, Calif., in California's Central Valley. The school has almost 9,300 students.

He said he did not foresee any problems with adapting to a rural, sparsely populated state, saying his current job was in a rural area of California and that Bismarck had a more impressive airport than Turlock.

"People say California. I'm not coming from San Francisco. I am not a Beverly Hills person," he said. "Most of my board members never (wear) ties ... and they drive pickup trucks, and in fact, I will be driving a truck too."

Board member Mike Haugen said he was impressed that Shirvani, in his interview, emphasized that "students come first, students come second, students come third."

"Too many times, we're talking about, how is the Legislature going to feel about this, or how are the university presidents?" Haugen said. "It's the students that we need to think about."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.