SIOUX CITY | Hamid "Ham" Shirvani, a controversial figure who has drawn both praise and criticism for his management style during two decades as a college administrator, was introduced Thursday as the 10th president of Briar Cliff University.
Shirvani’s appointment culminates a nationwide search for a successor to Bev Wharton, who announced in September she would step down as president at the end of this academic year. Wharton has led the private Sioux City college for 15 years, the longest tenure in its 85-year history.
Sister Cathy Katoski, chairwoman of the Briar Cliff board of directors, said Shirvani was a unanimous choice of the board.
"This is a monumental day for us. Dr. Shirvani's prior experience, his proven leadership, his strong character and his deep Catholic beliefs make an excellent fit to lead this university," Katoski said at a ceremony at the Stark Center where Shirvani was greeted by applause from the crowd of more than 150.
"I am both honored and humbled," he told the audience.
Shirvani, 65, said he wants to grow Briar Cliff’s academic programs, facilities and the student population. The Catholic school has an enrollment of 1,149 and 66 faculty members, not counting adjunct instructors.
Shirvani, who has 36 years of higher-education experience, later defended his record and answered questions about controversies during his leadership roles at public universities in North Dakota and California.
“Every institution that I've been at I've left in a better way than when I started," he said.
Leading colleges, he said, can be a messy process, however, since those affiliated with institutions have ideas on priorities and how to reach them.
"Sometimes there are no reactions and other times there are reactions," Shirvani said.
NORTH DAKOTA CONTROVERSIES
Shirvani lasted just 11 months in his most recent leadership post, as chancellor of the North Dakota University System, which oversees the state's 11 public campuses. In June 2013, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education unanimously voted to approve a buyout of the final two years of his contract at a cost of nearly $925,000.
The buyout came after months of growing concern among state lawmakers, university system officials, faculty and student groups over Shirvani’s management style and treatment of staff.
The state Legislature in 2014 approved a general election ballot resolution for that fall that called for revamping the chancellor’s office with a three-member commission.
On Thursday, Shirvani pointed to his efforts to improve graduation rates in North Dakota. He initially secured "a clear mandate" for that change and other initiatives, but said the circumstances quickly changed.
"I was in North Dakota in a very turbulent time ... It was time for me to leave," he said Thursday.
Prior to going to North Dakota, Shirvani served as president of California State University Stanislaus, where he also was a controversial figure during his seven-year tenure, from 2005 to 2012.
Four years into his term there, 91 percent of the 264 professors on campus expressed no confidence in his leadership.
"I made decisions which were the right decisions for the students and the faculty were displeased with some of the decisions, and as a result they expressed themselves by a vote of no confidence,” Shirvani said.
"(The controversy) had zero impact on my presidency, my leadership ... Unfortunately it gets into media, in a very bad light, and 'Oh, my gosh.' But if you really look at the culture of higher education, this is very common in higher education, and is an expression of displeasure," he continued.
Twice during his tenure at the school at Turlock, in 2007 and 2009, Shirvani received the president of the year award from the student government body of the 23-campus California State University system.
Under his leadership, the school also turned a budget deficit into a $4 million surplus, rapidly grew its enrollment to nearly 9,000 students, and gained national recognition from the Princeton Review as one of the "Best 366 Colleges" in the United States, a ranking shared by only 10 percent of colleges and universities nationally.
Briar Cliff officials pointed out that Shirvani has raised more than $700 million in development and fundraising activities, as well as more than $1 million in research grant funding for the institutions he served.
In addition, they said, he comes highly recommended from education leaders around the country.
“I cannot think of anyone more qualified, experienced and committed than Dr. Shirvani,” the Rev. George Niederauer, archbishop emeritus of San Francisco/Archbishop Emeritus of Salt Lake City, said in a statement. “His manners, humility and communication skills enable him to relate to the many constituencies that are so critical to the health of an institution.”
FROM IRAN TO AMERICA
Shirvani was born in Tehran, Iran, where his Catholic faith was in the minority. He said his mother wanted to raise him with Western values, so he was educated in a Catholic school in London before coming to America.
He earned a master’s degree from Harvard University and doctorate degree from Princeton University. He was an architecture professor before moving into college administration. His higher education career has taken him not only to California and North Dakota but also Colorado, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania.
Shirvani said Thursday he plans to teach an architecture class at Briar Cliff.
Among the students who watched his introduction Thursday was Erin Bellefeuille, a senior from Lakeville, Minnesota.
Bellefeuille said she had observed the presidential selection process with a lot of interest and had met some of the candidates on campus, including Shirvani when he visited with his wife a few weeks ago.
"After he left, all of the students were really impressed with him. I went back to my dorm, and they were really impressed with him and they really liked him a lot," Bellefeuille said.
Bellefeuille said athletics aren't that important to her, but many students have as a top wish list that the new president will call for construction of a multi-use facility that could hold home football games near campus.
Briar Cliff started a football team in 2003 and after several years of leasing Memorial Field in Sioux City now plays home games 35 miles away at the University of South Dakota’s DakotaDome in Vermillion.
"That's the students' big dream, to have something close to home," Bellefeuille said.
Wharton served as an executive for MidAmerican Energy Co. for 20 years before becoming Briar Cliff’s ninth president on June 1, 2001. That was the same date the institution officially raised its status from a college to a university.
Wharton said it is a tough time to move on from her enjoyable years at Briar Cliff, but she has trust in Shirvani.
"He has the ability to lead Briar Cliff to a bright future," she said.
Shirvani, who is currently a senior fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington D.C., will begin his presidency at Briar Cliff on June 1.
The private school declined to release his salary.
The Bismarck (N.D.) Tribune contributed to this story.