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Unpacking a new president: Schafer takes over UND

Ed Schafer takes a phone interview Friday morning on his first day at UND as interim president. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

Ed Schafer feels right at home.

Well, he'll feel even more at home once he's all moved into the UND President's House.

Wearing a yellow North Dakota Corn Growers Association hoodie and denim blue jeans, Schafer arrived Friday morning at his new residence for his first day as UND's interim president, beginning it by backing a vehicle and trailer into the garage and then helping movers bring in boxes of items he'll need for the next six months.

"We sure picked a good day to move," Schafer said, quipping at the below-zero temperatures.

The former governor of North Dakota was selected by the State Board of Higher Education to fill the role following the retirement of Robert Kelley, who led the school for 7 ½ years.

Schafer's time as the school's leader will be short in comparison, but he said he's still hoping to accomplish several tasks while living at the president's residence.

Digging through all of the boxes, Schafer had trouble finding some of the items he needed on his first day, which caused him to show up few minutes late for his first meeting as president—a meeting with the UND Graphic Identity RFP Evaluation and Recommendation Team, a committee that will choose the designer of the Fighting Hawks logo.

It's not like showing up to a cabinet meeting late,—President George W. Bush started right on time, he said—but he still didn't want to be tardy, especially on his first day.

"I apologize for being a little late," he told the committee when he walked in. "We were unpacking the trailer at the house and I couldn't find my shoes. I didn't want to go out in this weather without them."

Up to the challenge

His first day as UND's interim president may have been a little hectic, but it isn't something uncommon for him and his wife, Nancy.

Scott Zimbel and Bobby Perez (right) help Schafer bring in some of the furniture into the President's office. Jesse Trelstad

"We're used to living in this fishbowl," he said.

As a two-term governor of North Dakota from 1992 to 2000 and a former U.S. secretary of agriculture at the end of Bush's presidency, Schafer has come into tough situations before and, in his opinion, has done his best to remedy the problems.

Now, as the leader of UND until June 30, he inherits a campus with a $5 million shortfall, a new nickname and logo to help integrate and unrest among some faculty members.

The controversial Fighting Sioux nickname was retired in 2012 after the NCAA threatened sanctions, but the retirement and process of choosing a new moniker has been the cause of public outcry.

Schafer will be in charge of picking the proposal for UND's new Fighting Hawks logo.

But he said he's up to the challenge.

As governor, he took over in a time when the North Dakota budget was struggling, with education taking the brunt of the cuts that needed to be made. When Schafer stepped into office, however, he said he made education his No. 1 priority, during which time his administration was able to increase spending by reshaping the budget to reflect spending priorities.

As secretary of agriculture, he oversaw a $95 billion operating budget, and while serving as governor, he was in charge of a $4.6 billion, so finding ways to help UND move out of the red is something he sees as an opportunity.

"Having been through this several times, I'm absolutely convinced that my background enables me to engage in that budgeting process," he said. "I've been there. I know how we can shape this budget to strengthen the university during tough times."

Alma mater

On Friday, the office that Schafer inherited from Kelley sat largely empty because he hasn't yet moved in his own personal desk that he's sat behind for 40 years at the Capitol in Bismarck, while working at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and in his other business ventures.

In 1948, his father, founder of Gold Seal Co. Harold Schafer, operated a sales office in the Empire State Building in New York and bought an old oak table from a used furniture dealer. Schafer eventually found the table in a warehouse, dug it out and has used it ever since.

"One of the reasons I use it is because it doesn't have any drawers in it," he said. "I'm a pack rat, so having no drawers means my out box is the best drawer possible."

Schafer told UND twice that he didn't want to be interim president before finally agreeing to do it after his wife convinced him to take the job.

"Nancy said 'It's your alma mater, and you sit here in Fargo wondering about things you read in the newspaper and what's going on and what can be done there,'" Schafer said. "She said, 'I really think we should look at it again.'"

UND student body president Matt Kopp pays Ed Schafer a visit to his office on his first day as interim president. Jesse Trelstad

In six months, Schafer said a successful presidency would be to hand over the keys to a capable, qualified and experienced full-time president that is excited to take over and make the university a bigger and better place.

This weekend, Schafer plans to attend hockey games—he already has friends and family asking him for tickets—and unpacking all of the boxes in his new home.

"It's really nice to be in Grand Forks," Schafer said. "The reception has been very welcoming and warm. A lot of people have said 'welcome home,' and it kind of feels like that. I went to school here, I've done a lot of work here, so it just feels like we're back."

Wade Rupard

Wade Rupard is a reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. Rupard is a 2014 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and is originally from Normal, Ill. 

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