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Mike Jacobs: Unease builds on UND campus

UND's president is a man of considerable ability. He sees the big picture. He sets and articulates goals. He's consistent in his public presentations. He made a good impression with important legislators.

Still, the UND campus is uneasy about the president, who's been on the job for 16 months now. At a news conference last week announcing the retirement of the athletic director, the reasons for this uneasiness were on display.

Brian Faison's retirement as athletic director was newsworthy, of course, and it got wide coverage throughout the state. What's more telling is the context that the president tried to create for the retirement. He opened the news conference by saying that Faison had "convinced" him that this is the time to retire.

The announcement actually followed a consultant's report about leadership of the athletic program. The president said it wasn't a review but "skill development." He was adamant about this. Contents of the report aren't known. It was delivered orally.

The athletic director stood next to the president during the news conference. The AD's wife sat next to a Grand Forks attorney.

Faison will continue in place through the end of December. He'll act as a consultant at full pay through June 2018, the end of the academic year. This was outlined at the news conference.

The Grand Forks Herald filed an open-records request and learned the rest of the story. Faison will get lump sum payments in July 2018 and January 2019 that amount to a full year's additional salary. The president described these terms as in line with other early retirements, but they don't suggest a voluntary decision to leave.

No surprise here. The president was deflecting responsibility, as he has done in other circumstances.

UND's president likes to see himself through rose-colored glasses. We got an early hint of this in his application for the presidency, in which he referred to himself as "the honorable." To be fair, as a former member of Congress, he's entitled.

Last week's retirement announcement suggests another presidential trait. He often acts in a pre-emptory way.

A committee looking at the UND athletic program recommended keeping women's hockey. He ended the program anyway — on a day when a promising recruit was visiting campus.

Earlier this year, the director of UND's Center for Innovation was asked to retire. That request didn't come from the president's office. Instead, the chair of the center's board of directors delivered the news.

Decisions about underused buildings were handled in much the same way. So was a decision to close a major campus roadway.

The UND Women's Center was moved from a free-standing house near campus to a more public space in the Student Union. The house was demolished.

The university also demolished the International Center and a meditation center that was attached, disappointing a donor. Future use of these and other empty spaces left on campus isn't known. Nor is the fate of a university-owned golf course, another donor bequest. There's considerable anxiety about potential parking lots and commercial developments.

Last week's retirement announcement also continued a trend toward centralization on campus. The provost will chair a committee looking for a new athletic director. This extends the provost's growing grasp on campus affairs. Of course, a new president would turn naturally to an established figure. His predecessor, an interim president, did the same. The uneasiness arises because the provost has been a controversial figure, regarded as secretive and reactive, as a faculty survey last year showed. In response, he's brought two deans into his inner circle on a part-time basis, and he's begun holding forums on campus inviting discussion of pending issues.

Other examples of centralization are ready at hand. A major initiative about unmanned aerial systems — popularly known as drones — was moved from the College of Aerospace Sciences to the president's office. The Computer Science Department was transferred from Aerospace to the College of Engineering.

Sometimes moves have seemed to undercut successful programs. For example, programs in entrepreneurship will be assigned to the College of Business, whose entrepreneurship chair left campus last year. The president has boasted of UND's rank as one of the nation's best colleges for training entrepreneurs, even as these programs have been trimmed back.

Last week's news conference about a high level retirement increased the uneasiness on campus. The president would have been better off declaring, "The athletic director and I have agreed that it's time for him to retire."

Instead, he created a quite different impression. Tom Miller, a Herald sportswriter, nailed it when he wrote, "I'm not buying this as a natural retirement for a second."

The episode continues a pattern that undermines the president's effectiveness. That's the perception, anyway, and perceptions are important, especially perceptions of courtesy, honesty and humility.

Mike Jacobs is a retired editor and publisher of the Herald. His email is mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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