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McFeely exclusive: Bresciani welcomes investigation into media rules flap

North Dakota State University Dean Bresciani, in a file photo from the university. Courtesy of NDSU

FARGO—In an exclusive interview Thursday, Aug. 12, North Dakota State University president Dean Bresciani reiterated he welcomes an independent investigation into what he knew—and when he knew it—regarding controversial media coverage guidelines briefly implemented by the university's athletic department.

A state Board of Higher Education committee voted Friday to hire an independent third party to look into whether Bresciani's handling of the situation violated any board policies.

The athletic department put into place a new policy that would've restricted how media companies that don't hold broadcast rights to Bison athletics cover football, men's basketball and women's basketball.

Bresciani rescinded the policy a few days later, saying in a press release he was "profoundly disappointed when I learned the facts of the issue." But text messages and e-mails obtained through an open records request showed Bresciani appeared to support and defend the new rules with athletic director Matt Larsen and university system chancellor Mark Hagerott.

He issued another statement saying his initial support was "misplaced" and included a timeline of events. One day later, he issued another press release that included a more detailed timeline and a statement saying he was "disappointed in the process" and not the new guidelines.

Thursday, in his office in Old Main, I asked Bresciani if he was concerned about an investigation.

"Not only am I not concerned, but I know what the answer is going to be: I didn't know. When I found out the facts of the matter, I reversed the decision and in a very timely and efficient manner," Bresciani said. "I actually welcome it, because it will be an objective third party looking at it rather than me trying to prove that I didn't know something. Of course if you're a cynic, you're going to be questioning whether I'm still being honest or not. So having a third party look at it will be very helpful."

Bresciani said the confusion over whether he actually supported the rules before rescinding them comes from the incomplete nature of electronic communication and from his misunderstanding on two important points: Whether the new rules were part of the bidding process for broadcast rights (they weren't) and whether they were common in college athletics (they aren't, particularly in Football Championship Subdivision).

KVLY-TV was awarded the football contract, Midco Sports Network won the basketball TV rights and Radio FM Media won the radio contract for all sports. Forum Communications Co. took part in the bidding.

"I think it's a classic example of when you don't know the timeline and that 75 percent of the conversation wasn't in texts or e-mails," Bresciani said. "All of us know with texts and e-mails, they are easy to misinterpret or interpret subjectively and have the facts be otherwise.

"I didn't know anything about the policy. When I asked about it and learned there was some sort of outrage forming about it in social media, I was out of town. I called and asked whether the policy had been part of the bid package and was given the impression it had been. I asked 'Is this a common policy?' and was told yes, relatively common. Not ubiquitous, but relatively common. I got back to campus at the beginning of the week and fairly quickly learned that the impressions that I had were not accurate. And that's the point that I realized we had not followed a process where these things were vetted throughout the university, starting and ending with me."

Are media guidelines something Bresciani would normally be involved with or would he be inclined to leave that decision up to Larsen and the athletic department?

"My style as a leader is to give a lot of responsibility to the people who report to me, and if they make a mistake we deal with it and we move on. I give the people who report to me the authority to make those decisions, but it's built on the premise of if that decision is going to have an impact that may be broader than your specific area or may spill over into the entire university's reputation, then I think my reports would know they better run it by me because at the end of the day, I'm the one that gets blamed for everything that happens at NDSU," Bresciani said. "In this case, that obviously didn't happen because this had sweeping implications for the university's reputation, and we would've approached it in a very different way than what it took place and the process that was used."

I asked Bresciani whether he felt misled by the answers he received from the athletic department.

"I think they interpreted common practice very differently than I would have. I meant common practice at the FCS level. And, frankly, even if it was common practice at the FCS level, I would have approached this more carefully. Just because it's fine for the rest of the country doesn't mean it's fine for Fargo, North Dakota," Bresciani said. "I think they were interpreting for a program at our point in their maturation that these are fairly common. But again, we're an FCS program. We may be a fairly unique FCS program, but we're an FCS program. The complexity of that is exactly why the process should have been a broad vetting of this and to talk through it. What are going to be the reactions to and implications of this? And that's where the process wasn't nearly adequate for what was being proposed."

Bresciani's contract, which expires in June 2017, hasn't been renewed by the state board. He's been under fire for not working within the state university system and having poor communication with the chancellor and board members. The board will review his standing next month. He views this as separate from those issues.

A Forum editorial called for Bresciani's resignation, saying he "misled" the public and is "an embarrassment" to the state. Will Bresciani step down?

"I have no plans to resign," he said.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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