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MSU presidential search narrows to three finalists

The Mayville State University presidential search is down to three finalists.

A search committee made up of a cross-section of MSU stakeholders met for the last time Thursday to quickly whittle down a list of four candidates, coming to prompt consensus to end their work for a search begun in November.

The last men standing for the search are Bernell Hirning, interim associate vice president and associate regional dean at National University in Fresno, Calif.; Brian Van Horn, associate provost at Murray State College in Murray, Ky.; and internal candidate Keith Stenehjem, MSU vice president for academic affairs.

The three finalists have now been submitted for consideration by the State Board of Higher Education, which will make the ultimate decision for MSU's next president. That leader will follow in the footsteps of longtime MSU President Gary Hagen, who is retiring this summer.

Discussion was fairly brief at the Thursday meeting, which ran at about half the time slotted for the evening's work. Committee members rattled through the pros and cons of the remaining pool, reflecting on the candidates' performance in interviews and public meetings held over the past few weeks.

Search committee head Andrew Pflipsen, MSU vice president for student affairs, said the remaining three candidates are "incredibly strong" options for the university.

"I think what it came down to was the connection," Pflipsen said of the final committee pick, briefly characterizing the three finalists—Hirning's long experience, Van Horn's passion for student engagement, Stenehjem's deep history with MSU and North Dakota higher education.

Committee members identified only one semifinalist who would not go on for board consideration. That was Tom Corti, vice president for student affairs at Farmingdale State College in New York. One other semifinalist, Tim O'Keefe, dean of the College of Business and Economics at Longwood University, in Farmville, Va., withdrew from the process earlier in the afternoon before the evening decision.

Before making their final vote of the evening, committee members made a soft tally of who they wanted to send to the next round. Each candidate needed to be nominated by a member of the group and receive six voices in support to make the cut, a process that gave the committee a chance to add brief comments for each semifinalist.

Corti did not receive a nomination. Pflipsen described him as a strong candidate with ample experience who nonetheless "may not have been the best fit," citing the "feeling of our campus community" and the connections made through the interview process.

For Donte Stevens, an MSU senior and the student representative on the committee, the last round of the decision highlighted the candidates' soft skills—how they presented themselves to campus and made clear their vision for the institution.

"It definitely couldn't be, 'Are they qualified,' because every single applicant was qualified," Stevens said. "It was more about whether they could represent the university, how they spoke, how they sold themselves."

The three finalists will now make their last pitch before the SBHE at the board's March 28 meeting, which will be held on the MSU campus.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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