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Mike Jacobs: 'Unusual media environment' in N.D.

This week's theme is "to see ourselves as others see us," and our lens is Dean Bresciani.

Bresciani is president of North Dakota State University.

NDSU's president has been controversial. The Board of Higher Education did not extend his contract in June, demanding more respect, collaboration and communication. In November, the board couldn't muster the votes needed to terminate, and the contract was extended. A key difference between the meetings was a change in the voting student member, from a UND enrollee to an NDSU student. This shifted the majority on the board toward Bresciani.

The message was clear, though, and Bresciani heeded it, applying to be president at Ohio University. He's one of four finalists there.

Bresciani's view of media stands out in the application process.

A student asked Bresciani about 45,000 emails that mysteriously disappeared in 2013. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said that deleting the emails violated the state's open records laws. He didn't blame Bresciani directly.

Replying to the student's question, Bresciani said, "I'm assuming you're basing off media reports. Our media is just as colorful as your media, and oftentimes higher education is an easy target."

This was reported in the Ohio University's student newspaper The Post, and reprinted in North Dakota newspapers on Saturday.

Bresciani was more pointed in a resume he sent to OU. This would be called a curriculum vita in the academic world. It runs to 13 pages.

He's had success, Bresciani assured the OU hiring committee, "in spite of an unusual if not atypically challenging media environment."

It's true that Bresciani has his critics, including this one. My indictment of Bresciani's tenure was laid out in this column nearly a year ago, on Feb. 2, 2016. It has less to do with Bresciani's performance at NDSU than with his failure to support a statewide university system.

Bresciani also has his supporters in the media, some of them sycophants. On the whole he's probably been treated about the same as other college presidents, system chancellors or political figures.

The paragraph that contains the quote about North Dakota's media environment is reflective of Bresciani's self-regard. Here it is, in full:

"Early in tenure, established the first campus-focused lobbying system in the state. While initially oriented toward NDSU, the system has been extended to broader support of statewide public higher education. Complimenting that effort, led the overhaul of campus marketing, image management and communication efforts which have since been consolidated and substantially modernized to create and meet steadily increasing state, regional and national market opportunities. In spite of an unusual if not atypically challenging media environment, NDSU now enjoys enthusiastic state-wide public visibility and support in having become North Dakota's flagship institution, and its president has become the recognized state-wide spokesman for higher education."

Funny, then, that Bresciani didn't appear at the higher education legislative caucus meeting in Bismarck on Tuesday last week. NDSU's provost was there instead. There are two likely explanations. One is that Bresciani was busy preparing for his OU interview on Thursday. The other is that Bresciani knows the ill-regard many legislators hold for him.

This left UND's new president, Mark Kennedy, as senior spokesperson for the higher education caucus. Chancellor Mark Hagerott was there, but he didn't speak from the podium.

Is Bresciani a contender at Ohio?

We'll know soon. The last of four candidates is on the OU campus today.

Ohio would not be a huge jump. Enrollment there is about 19,000 on the main campus in Athens and 9,000 more on five branch campuses in southern Ohio. It's part of the Ohio Department of Higher Education, which is headed by a chancellor appointed by the governor. The chancellor is a member of the gubernatorial cabinet. A nine-member board of regents advises the chancellor. Regents are appointed by the governor with the approval of the state Senate.

In North Dakota, the higher education system is essentially a fourth branch of government; the governor's only role is appointing members of the Board of Higher Education and the Legislature's only roles are approving the board members and funding the system.

Ohio's model was among those studied when North Dakota legislators were looking for ways to gain more influence over the system. They ended up presenting a constitutional amendment creating a three-person board. Voters rejected that idea in the 2014 election.

Bresciani's tenure at NDSU hasn't been without achievements. In his resume he boasted about Bison athletics and he claimed credit for "reversing substantial deficits inherited from the previous administration."

Credit is due for both.

My hope is that Bresciani gets the Ohio University job. It's a bigger school, the better to accommodate his considerable ego and to employ his considerable ability.

Most important for North Dakota, his departure would create an opportunity for the Board of Higher Education to hire a true collaborator who would help build the North Dakota University System.

Achieving this goal is all the more important with reinvention and retrenchment in the future.

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