Who should pay for Bresciani's 'golden parachute?' Higher ed bill would take charge off NDSU's plate
The amendment to the House higher education budget bill would have the university system, not NDSU, pay for former president Dean Bresciani's severance.
BISMARCK — Several amendments to a North Dakota higher education budget bill passed a committee hearing Tuesday, Feb. 7, including one that would require the state university system office, not North Dakota State University, to bear the cost of the severance package of former President Dean Bresciani.
The amendment to House Bill 1003, which passed on a 6-1 vote, calls on the North Dakota University System office to pay NDSU $400,000 for additional costs incurred when Bresciani’s contract was not renewed, which some have referred to as a "golden parachute."
It was among five amendments to the higher education bill heard by the House Appropriations Education and Environment Division committee on Tuesday.
If the bill passes with the amendment intact, it would apply to all future severance agreements at the state’s 11 colleges and universities, not just Bresciani’s split as NDSU president, said Rep. Steve Swiontek, R-Fargo.
Committee chair Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, said it’s a way to ensure schools aren’t penalized for a severance agreement in which they have no input.
“They still didn't have a say in the financial aspect of this package, but yet they're saddled with the costs. And we have a school in NDSU right now which is in the hurt bag financially, so this will help NDSU and any other school going forward,” Nathe said.
In late January, NDSU President David Cook outlined cuts to academic colleges, programs and faculty to deal with $7.6 million in funding reductions for the 2023-25 budget biennium.
NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott answered questions of committee members about Bresciani’s severance package, which he acknowledged had an “element of generosity” to it.
He indicated it was a delicate balancing act at a time when many people weren’t happy about the non-renewal of Bresciani’s contract in June 2021.
“The board was trying to transition to be sure the Alumni Association was happy and key donors were happy," Hagerott said. "We had to thread the needle, or the board did, on honoring the former president."
"The board said, 'We don't want you to be president anymore, but we're gonna give you a golden parachute,'" Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, said.
Bresciani remains an employee of NDSU with a 2023 salary set at $165,000 and an extended sabbatical prior to a tenured professorship that begins this fall.
In an email obtained by The Forum from Legislative Specialist Tammy Dolan in the NDUS system office, she took issue with the $400,000 request related to Bresciani’s severance.
In the email, she said the system office “does not receive an appropriation for such costs and would need to take dollars from the operating budget, which is nearly 80% salaries & wages.”
The email went on to say the request would hamper the office’s ability to fulfill its statutory and board-directed duties.
“One of the Board and Chancellor’s primary responsibilities is to hire presidents, and it seems odd that the office would be penalized for fulfilling that duty,” the email stated.
NDUS Board President Casey Ryan, who was not president when the severance package was negotiated, said the amount should be much less than that, or half of Bresciani’s former salary of $371,380.
The committee also discussed a plan to freeze higher education tuition in North Dakota for two years at a cost of $47 million, but members agreed to take up that amendment later.
Other amendments that passed included one that would require more communication with NDUS about student credit hours so that colleges and universities could better foresee budget difficulties, and another included a plan to expedite approval of new programs at colleges and universities within a 30-day time period.
A fifth amendment would require the State Board of Higher Education to inform finalists for president jobs about a school’s financial situation so that they didn’t come into a job blind about budget troubles.
Nathe said that was the situation for both NDSU President David Cook and North Dakota State College of Science President Rod Flanigan.
That amendment was not voted on Tuesday, as committee members requested language be added requiring job finalists to not disclose financial information in those situations.