ATHENS, OHIO-North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani took some tough questions Thursday, Jan. 12, in a public forum here, part of the interview process in his bid to be Ohio University's next president.
More than 100 students, faculty and community members packed a ballroom on campus for the second in a series of forums featuring the four finalists.
Bresciani, NDSU's president since 2010, began by describing his personal experience as a first-generation college student, having grown up in Napa Valley, Calif., to a family of Italian immigrants.
He said he "didn't have the opportunity to be raised in a privileged environment" and struggled to garner support from his family to pursue a college education. He holds a Ph.D. in higher education-finance from the University of Arizona.
His ongoing journey in higher education, he explained, has led him to OU.
"How could I not be interested in this position?" Bresciani said. "You are-in movies and books and songs-what colleges and universities are supposed to be like."
Bresciani's contract at NDSU runs through June 2018, but the State Board of Higher Education delayed extending his contract due to what they described as performance issues related to communications, research activity, collaboration and information technology.
North Dakota's higher-education system is also looking at steep cuts in the two-year budget cycle that begins in July.
In an email to the NDSU campus announcing his bid for the Ohio job, Bresciani said other jobs have become "particularly attractive" in "the past few months."
Questions from the audience in Athens tackled a wide array of topics, ranging from diversity and inclusion initiatives to sexual assault and tensions with campus activists.
Graduate Student Senate President Ian Armstrong questioned Bresciani about a controversial email situation during his time at NDSU.
In 2013, 45,000 emails were deleted from Bresciani's inbox around the same time the North Dakota Legislative Council sought a wide swath of his email correspondence in an open records request.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem released an opinion later that year that said the system had violated open records law but not whether the deletion of the emails was intentional.
During Thursday's forum, Bresciani denied any wrongdoing, claiming Stenehjem found no violation of law. He blamed local media for sensationalizing the story.
"I'm assuming you're basing (the question) off media reports," Bresciani said. "Our media is just as colorful as your media, and oftentimes higher education is an easy target."
Following the forum, Armstrong described Bresciani as "well-spoken," though he remained undecided as to which candidate he prefered.
Former Texas Tech University President Duane Nellis was the first finalist to participate in a public forum, which took place Tuesday.
"It's a toss-up. I think I like Nellis better at this point, but it's hard to say. We'll see what the next two candidates look like," Armstrong said.
Bresciani also responded to questions regarding funding for university athletics, saying the problems have "gotten worse, not better," when it comes to using student fees to subsidize Division I athletics.
"No one can step away (from Division I sports) first," Bresciani said. "The consequences because of the expectations of consistency at major resource universities to step away from D-I athletics gets to be a real problem on the national level. No one can step away from the table first."
Bresciani told the audience he didn't want to be "critical" of certain topics relating specifically to OU, especially when it comes to subjects such as tenure and faculty research, two subjects that arose on multiple occasions.
"Without tenure, you could argue even more so today, faculty would be extremely limited in their academic freedoms," Bresciani said. "I'm a very strong proponent of tenure ... but we will soon have to get much, much better at describing what tenure is or what tenure is not."
Former Faculty Senate Chair Beth Quitslund, who raised concerns about falling academic rankings on a national scale, understood why Bresciani avoided certain questions.
"I thought he was very personable. I thought he answered some questions more directly than others, as one would expect," Quitslund, an associate English professor, said after the forum. "I was also slightly concerned in that I got from him such mixed signals about what it is he envisions as research productivity (and) how he imagines tenure to play a role in that."
Members of the media were not permitted to ask questions during or after the event.
Two additional forums were scheduled for the finalists. A forum for Robert Frank, president of the University of New Mexico since 2012, was to be held Friday, Jan. 13. Pam Benoit, executive vice president and provost of Ohio University since 2009, was set for for a forum Tuesday, Jan. 17.
Ohio University reported total enrollment last fall of 40,025 and is rated as a research university with high activity by Carnegie. Its president, Roderick McDavis, announced last March that he intends to step down this June. His 2016-17 salary is $500,000, nearly doubling the salary when he started 12 years ago.
Bresciani's annual salary is $354,568.
Lauren Fisher writes for The Post, an independent student publication on Ohio University's campus.