Hamid Shirvani's decision to accept a position as chancellor of the North Dakota University System came down to a few bottom-line calculations, especially the amount of state support for higher education.
"It's certainly one of the few states where there are no budget problems," said Mr. Shirvani, who is leaving his post as president of the California State University-Stanislaus after seven years.
The California State University system has seen state budget cuts of nearly 35 percent, more than a billion dollars, during the past four years. To compensate, the system has raised tuition by double-digit percentages for several years and has capped enrollment. In contrast, North Dakota lawmakers have increased spending on higher education by nearly 60 percent since the 2006 fiscal year as the state's economy has been buoyed by revenues from oil and gas production as well as high prices for farm crops.
Mr. Shirvani said his priorities include advancing the relationship between economic development and higher education in the state and improving the college-going rate.
Elected officials and higher-education leaders in North Dakota have set high expectations for the new chancellor to guide the system beyond a series of embarrassing setbacks and divisive controversies.
The key to meeting those expectations will be to exert "stronger oversight from the chancellor's office," Mr. Shirvani said.
In some senses, Mr. Shirvani's selection represents a willingness by the system's board to shake things up in a state where conservative Midwestern values and politics often dictate the status quo. The previous chancellor, William G. Goetz, earned all of his degrees in the state's public colleges, served 20 years as a state legislator, and was a faculty member and administrator at Dickinson State University before leading the system.
In contrast, Mr. Shirvani, whose family came to the United States from Iran to escape religious persecution, has an undergraduate degree from a polytechnic university in London; three master's degrees, including one from Harvard University; and a doctorate from Princeton University. Specializing in urban planning and architecture, he has held jobs as a faculty member or administrator at institutions in California, Colorado, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania.
That varied perspective and experience is one thing that State Board of Higher Education members cited when they hired him. The board's president was quoted as referring to the new chancellor as a "rock star" and "visionary."
State Sen. Anthony S. Grindberg, a Republican and executive director of the North Dakota State University Research and Technology Park, said lawmakers are committed to investing in higher education when it succeeds. But they also expect the new chancellor to "provide solid leadership in the face of a changing environment" that includes demographic shifts in the state and the need to provide more education online to expand access and keep costs down.
Mr. Shirvani will have some more immediate concerns, including the fallout from a scandal over Dickinson State's improperly awarding hundreds of degrees to foreign students, mostly Chinese, and the long-running controversy over the University of North Dakota's decision to retire its Fighting Sioux logo. Residents recently upheld that decision, voting overwhelmingly in favor of a ballot measure to allow the university to drop the name.
The chancellor and the state board need to have better policies in place to prevent future problems, Mr. Shirvani said.
Senator Grindberg said the new chancellor will have to balance his desire to regulate the institutions more heavily with the needs of the individual colleges. "The chancellor has no constituency base. He's going to have to set a vision and not come across as heavy-handed," said Mr. Grindberg.
Mr. Shirvani comes to North Dakota with his own controversial past. In 2009, the faculty of the Stanislaus campus voted "no confidence" in his leadership after he wrote an essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education that criticized colleges' "country-club-quality recreational facilities and multitudes of majors and minors," as well as their rankings-driven obsession with status.
The dust-up led to a special visit by the university's regional accreditor to deal with the rift between the faculty and the president, and the creation of a special campus committee that is still working to repair the relationship between instructors and administrators, said Mark A. Grobner, speaker of the Academic Senate at the Stanislaus campus.
Mr. Shirvani said he learned a lot from that controversy, especially about the need to communicate more openly with faculty members.
"The best lesson is to ... take a little more time and listen to as many people as possible," he said. "But the truth of the matter is that, as a leader, one has to make the right decision, not the popular decision," he said.
Correction (7/11/2012): The original article misidentified the group that voted "no confidence" in Hamid Shirvani's leadership in 2009. It was the faculty at California State University-Stanislaus, not just the faculty union. That error has been corrected in the text of the article.