Servant leadership has gotten some attention this week. The phrase was at the top of the Herald’s front page last week, in big type. It’s a fairly squishy notion, hard to define and consequently not well understood. That’s allows for an empty kind of praise. If you can’t say anything definitive, say “servant leader.”

That’s why it’s good to look for examples of servant leadership, and counter examples. We’re all plenty familiar with self-interested leadership, even if it sometimes masquerades as “servant leadership.” Examples are easy enough to find. Servant leadership? That’s another thing.

A vivid example did show up last week, when UND’s interim president “paused” plans to rebuild the Memorial Student Union. The plan he inherited would have increased student fees by $14 per credit hour, or $168 a semester for a student taking 12 credit hours, the usual load for a full-time student.

Josh Wynne – a man of many titles – saw immediately that the plan not only increased student debt, it had the potential to discourage enrollment at UND, so it was a critical issue for UND’s future. Wynne is interim president as well as dean of the College of Medicine and Health Sciences and vice president. For this, he is paid $690,000 a year, the same salary he got when he had only two titles.

His predecessor had used enrollment to pitch the original plan. Prospective students make a decision about a college in the first few minutes of their campus visit, he argued, and the Student Union building is the focus of student tours and student activities. Students bought the idea, approving an increase in fees in an election that was poorly publicized and largely overlooked. A small fraction of students actually voted.

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The incoming student government – in its own example of servant leadership – worked to find alternatives, and Wynne responded by “pausing” destruction of the old union building, dating from the Sixties and several times enlarged and otherwise remodeled.

Within a week, Wynne and the university’s finance office had a new plan, dramatically decreasing new student fees for the building. By shifting some student funds around, and adding other funds, the cost to students was cut by 55 percent.

It’s a wonder the original plan won approval from the Board of Higher Education, which has emphasized “servant leadership,” but it did. The Legislature backed it, too, and the whole idea was seen as a victory for the president, who has since moved on.

The board approved Wynne’s amended plan last week, and the existing Student Union building will be taken down, beginning soon.

All of this occurred as a committee begins searching for a new president, a process that’s expected to take the rest of the year. At listening sessions last week servant leadership got quite a bit of attention; possibly because presidents at the state’s research universities have been notably lacking in the one ingredient that’s essential to servant leadership, which is humility.

Casey Ryan, co-chair of the committee and a member of the Board of Higher Education, praised Brian Van Horn, chosen last year to lead Mayville State University, a four-year school. Van Horn jokes that he’s from Southern North Dakota, though he actually comes from Kentucky. His southern twang and easy manner helped him into the job. He followed Gary Hagen, a native North Dakotan who spent his career at Mayville State, where he was one of the university system’s best examples of “servant leadership.”

A committee seeking applications for the UND presidency had a lot to say about the characteristics the committee should look for in a candidate; familiarity with the state was one. Being a North Dakotan isn’t a prerequisite, though, nor a guarantee of success. Jeff Helm, vice provost for online education and strategic planning, nailed it when he said candidates had to be sincerely curious about the state.

There was some discussion about whether a terminal degree – a doctorate – is necessary. The last two presidents didn’t have one. The consensus was about the same. It’s not necessary, nor is it a guarantee of success, but it does contribute to an understanding of academic institutions and their traditions.

The ability to respond quickly – a quality often labeled entrepreneurship -- is vital, too, especially with a governing system that so often accepts proposed new programs on one campus without considering their impact on another. For several decades, NDSU expanded programs that had been traditional at the state’s liberal arts university, including history, philosophy, communications, business -- it amounts to quite a long list.

UND has been creative in its offerings, building a world class aviation program, for example (without state funds, in the beginning). As business gurus often put it, new programs often come at the expense of an enterprise’s “core mission.”

The committee heard some bellyaching about media, so it’s worth noting that media didn’t make the mistakes that we reported.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.