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MCFEELY: An NDSU president under siege is old story; Herald just another 'media barker'

NDSU Bison Statue on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. Matt Hellman / Forum News Service1 / 2
Mike McFeely, Oct. 17, 2015Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 2

FARGO—A western North Dakota legislator said of the North Dakota State University president: "The guy thought he was the second coming."

"It's so obvious that he got carried away with his own ego and thought he could do just about anything he felt like doing. In a way, I feel sorry for him. So many people enabled him," the same legislator continued.

A different western North Dakota legislator had this to say, also, about NDSU's president: "Either the man was arrogant to the extent that he did not think he was touchable, or he was incompetent."

Any guesses as to who the NDSU president under the microscope might be? If you guessed the office's current occupant, Dean Bresciani, you'd be wrong. No, it was Joseph Chapman, Bresciani's predecessor, who resigned in 2009.

FILE PHOTO: North Dakota State University's president Joseph Chapman. (Inforum.com)Guessing who was dancing on Chapman's grave might be easier.

The first two quotes can be attributed to John Andrist, once a state senator from Crosby. The third quote is from Bob Skarphol, a representative from Tioga.

If their names sound familiar, there's good reason. Both have been blistering critics of Bresciani in recent months, leveling charges of "arrogance" and "ego" at the current president. Skarphol continues to hammer Bresciani and NDSU, even though he'll soon be retired from the Legislature. Andrist is retired and living in Fargo, but the former newspaper publisher still finds time to hack away at a keyboard and pound Bresciani.

FILE PHOTO: NDSU President Dean Bresciani, Sept. 19, 2015. ( David Samson/The Forum)The more things change, the more they stay the same.

You can learn things by digging through old newspaper clippings. One of them is this: The hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over NDSU's president and the state university system is not new and many of the complaints—and those making the complaints—are dog-eared, too.

Did you know, for example, that when a frustrated Thomas Plough resigned as NDSU's president in 1998 he let fly with a critique of the higher education system—from the governor on down—that would fit just as comfortably in today's world?

"We have a culture here that tends to look for mistakes rather than celebrate successes," Plough said.

"Oversight and reporting are excessive here and add little to the campus-based work that we do," he continued. "We have a Byzantine governance process and structure which fatigues and frustrates college presidents and would drive business people nuts."

FILE PHOTO: Former North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer. (Michael Vosburg/Forum Photo Editor)The governor at the time, by the way, was Ed Schafer. He called for a 95 percent budget, which set off college presidents and sparked Plough's resignation. Hmm, Schafer. Name sounds familiar. Has he been stirring the pot in North Dakota higher ed news lately?

The point here is not to defend any of the NDSU leaders, necessarily, but to make a note that the pressures and criticisms on them are apparently the same regardless of their name or the decade in which they serve. The last three NDSU presidents, serving in the 1990s, 2000s and now the 2010s, have been flummoxed by a strikingly similar (if not always exactly the same) flock of mosquitoes: the governor, the Legislature, the state board of higher education, the chancellor, the media.

Former Herald editor Mike JacobsThe media barkers include the Grand Forks Herald, whose editorials back in the day roasted Chapman as an empire builder and whose former editor currently lambasts Bresciani, Fargo and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead while turning a blind and cheerleading eye to the institution in his own backyard. He's an alum and probably doesn't want to get into uncomfortable discussions with his buddies at Ralph's arena during hockey games.

Speaking of which, an editorial 10 years ago in the Adams Standard of Walsh County lays out wonderfully the friction between the University of North Dakota and NDSU. It is as applicable today as it was then. Editor Gunnard Ness was writing about the demise of Chancellor Robert Potts, but he could've been commenting on the current state of affairs with the new UND president taking every opportunity to refer to his school as the "flagship" and his upriver competitor as the "land-grant."

"He is the just the latest casualty," Ness wrote of Potts, the chancellor who lost a power struggle with Chapman. "The die was cast several years ago when the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks lost its status as THE university when North Dakota Agricultural College was given university status. We remember a conversation at the time with a former professor of ours who was adamant against the promotion, if you will, of the cow college to an institution of university status. To our comment that the people of the prime population and economic center of the state should be entitled to higher education benefits, drew the retort ... but they, NDSU and indirectly Fargo, will get state monies that we, UND and Grand Forks, want."

That battle was fought in 1960. It, and others involving NDSU and the president, continue in 2016.

Bresciani. File photo/Forum News ServicePerhaps higher ed's critics are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking what's wrong with NDSU, maybe they should be asking what is wrong with the system. If the goal is a cohesive system, maybe it's unattainable with the current model.

"Molding the institutions into a unified state system has been an elusive objective since the (state) board was created in the 1930s," columnist Lloyd Omdahl of the Herald wrote in 2006.

The same sentence applies in 2016. North Dakota has given it nearly 90 years. Maybe it's time to try something else.

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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