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Higher ed president not picked for second term

A nominating committee forwarded names of three finalists Tuesday to Gov. John Hoeven as possibilities to serve on North Dakota's Board of Higher Education, but that list didn't include incumbent member and board president, John Paulsen.

A nominating committee forwarded names of three finalists Tuesday to Gov. John Hoeven as possibilities to serve on North Dakota's Board of Higher Education, but that list didn't include incumbent member and board president, John Paulsen.

During their meeting, committee members discussed Paulsen's role in the controversial exit of former North Dakota University System Chancellor Robert Potts, whose abandonment by the board in 2006 and large severance package enraged many state legislators.

At the center of Potts' trouble with the board was a funding dispute with North Dakota State University President Joseph Chapman, who Potts said bucked his authority and sought funding from lawmakers outside the confines of the agreed-upon university system budget.

Potts asked the board to codify his authority over Chapman and other university presidents and when the board refused to do so, he resigned -- one year before the end of his contract -- taking a $224,750 buyout and a one-year consulting contract for which he later said he did no real work.

Paulsen was one of five board members who voted against extending Potts' authority. But he was the focus of much of the public criticism because he was and remains the board's president, and because of his close connection with the Fargo community and with Chapman, who critics said showed himself to be the real power behind the board.

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Two members of the nominating committee, Gerald VandeWalle, chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court, and Wayne Sanstead, state superintendent of public instruction, called Potts' departure a fiasco Tuesday.

Another member, Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, said he's received many phone calls about the Potts episode, especially the severance package. With the board now seeking a 53 percent funding increase from the 2009 legislature, he said, the combination "leaves a sour message."

Paulsen was eligible for a second four-year term, but instead will finish his tenure on the board June 30.

Disappointed

Paulsen said Tuesday he was disappointed but not surprised that his name wasn't forwarded, saying he was well aware of lingering resentment about the Potts-Chapman affair.

"I know there are still legislators that are resentful of the departure of Chancellor Potts and I know that they believe that in the argument between the chancellor and President Chapman, that the chancellor should have prevailed," he said.

"While I believe I'm kind of a victim in this situation, if my departure means we can finally put the Potts-Chapman issue behind us, that will be a good thing for all of us. While I'm disappointed and sorry I won't be able to continue to serve on the State Board of Higher Education, I do believe we need to go beyond that past history, however it may have evolved. If my departure from the board puts that behind us, I think it will be good for North Dakota, good for the state board and good for higher education generally."

Several legislators and board members echoed Paulsen's statements Tuesday, saying they hoped Paulsen's departure would put an end to the longstanding conflict between lawmakers and the board.

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Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said in an e-mail that many non-Fargo lawmakers continue to feel Potts was a good chancellor who was "screwed" by the board.

"I think, on a personal level, that Paulsen would have served with distinction if he had gone forward," Holmberg wrote. "But he was tainted with the Potts thing and paid the price."

Bev Clayburgh, a Grand Forks-based board member who retired in July, said she hoped the board could now move on from the Potts controversy, but said it was unfair to put the onus for Potts' departure on Paulsen, noting that board members' dissatisfaction with Potts went beyond the Chapman conflict.

New role

Grant Shaft, a Grand Forks attorney who replaced Clayburgh on the board, said he thought his appointment, along with the recent appointments of other new board members Duaine Espegard of Grand Forks and Jon Backes of Minot, signaled a new and more activist role for the board as well as an effort to leave old conflicts behind.

Shaft credited Paulsen for working well with new board members, citing several recent university president searches.

"As a new board, we've tried to treat that as old business," he said of the Potts controversy. "We've made it crystal clear with the new chancellor and in relations with the presidents that type of situation won't be repeated."

Chapman was not available for comment Tuesday. Prakash Mathew, NDSU's student affairs vice president, praised Paulsen as a strong voice for students and called his departure, "a big loss for the state of North Dakota, not just for any particular institution."

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When asked about the role of the Chapman-Potts conflict played in Paulsen's failure to win nomination for a second term, Mathew said, "if that did play a role, it's unfortunate."

Current university system Chancellor William Goetz declined to comment, saying it was an issue for the governor and the nominating committee and outside the scope of his authority.

Three votes

Applicants needed four votes from the nominating committee to be forwarded to Gov. John Hoeven for consideration, but Paulsen received only three votes.

The three applicants whose names were forwarded Tuesday are: retired adjutant general Michael Haugen of Fargo, Bismarck attorney and former gubernatorial legal counsel Robert Harms, and Duane Pool, who works for The Nature Conservancy.

Hoeven must pick from the three names given him. He can't reject the list and tell the nominating committee to start over.

Tuesday, Hoeven spokesman Don Canton said of Paulsen, "We appreciate his service to the board of Higher Education but the process requires we pick from the names we're given."

Paulsen said despite this setback, he does hope to continue to be active in public life.

"Public service is in my DNA," he said, "and I'm looking forward to the continued opportunity to participate in the public life of this community of Fargo and the state of North Dakota."

Reach Marks at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to jmarks@gfherald.com .

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