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UND, NDSU research bill fails in the House

Mike Jacobs: Campus dust-up continues pattern

UND President Mark Kennedy presents Angelique Foster with a President’s Medal, one of the highest honors the president can bestow. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

The headline Friday said, "UND retains chief of staff Foster."

This was surely good news for Mark Kennedy, the university's president, and for Angelique Foster, who got a more prestigious title, a bigger salary and the chance to work remotely.

UND's handling of the announcement was another "good news" item. The university responded to questions immediately after the story broke. That hasn't always been the case in the state's higher education system.

News occurs in context, of course, and it generally brings reaction. This episode extends a pattern of hiring that's drawn questions both on and beyond the campus, and not just at UND but at NDSU as well.

But let's examine the good news first. Kennedy gets to continue working with a trusted associate. Foster started at UND on Kennedy's first day as president, July 1, 2016, following him from George Washington University. Kennedy's decision to bring his own assistant rather than employing someone familiar with the campus was an episode in the pattern. In at least one other instance, a business associate worked as a consultant. In another instance, he sought to add an "events coordinator" to his staff. When Kennedy launched a strategic planning process, Foster served as coordinator and convenor, a role that led to a "presidential medal," described as "one of the highest honors the president can bestow" (and one that's become much more prominent than it's ever been, if it ever was before. I forgot to ask that question).

Late last year, Foster said she wanted to leave UND to be closer to home in North Carolina. A search ensued. Quoting from an email from David Dodds, the university's go-to guy for reporters, "Prior to the search, when it became clear that Angelique had been effectively completing the responsibilities of a chief of staff and in order to continue the progress of the university would need to be replaced at that level, it was deemed imperative to reflect that in title, job description and pay."

(Adding to the context here: Dodds is a former Herald reporter; while I was the Herald's editor, we worked closely together in some of the most stressful situations our newsroom faced. I like him and I trust him. Also as the one-time top dog of an important local enterprise, albeit a smaller one, I appreciate the president's concern that his staff shares his goals.)

With the title, Foster got a $30,000 raise, bringing her salary to $114,000 a year. She'll work from Texas, returning to campus as often as twice a month. To make that possible, she'll get up to $25,000 a year in travel expenses. She'll be one of 118 UND employees who work remotely, Dodds said. Foster's predecessor, whose title was special assistant to the president, was paid $101,000 yearly, after 20 years on campus.

The "chief of staff" title implies someone who oversees day-to-day operations, and the job description, created ahead of the search, implies as much. "The chief of staff serves as a visible leader across campus," it says in answer to a question about the purpose of the position. The "Yes" box is checked in answer to the question "Is this position essential during emergencies/closures?"

The position is relatively new in the state university system. President Dean Bresciani created the position at NDSU and gave it to the campus attorney, Chris Wilson, whose job the Legislature moved to the state attorney general's office. The Herald's headline said, "Under title change, attorney stays at NDSU after lawyers removed." When the change was made Wilson made $177,366 annually; his current salary is $182,687, according to figures provided by Dodds.

Bresciani and Kennedy have pushed for greater autonomy for the research universities, and a task force appointed by Gov. Doug Burgum agreed, recommending that each campus report to a separate board while the remaining state-supported colleges and universities, nine of them, would report to a third board. The Legislature has rejected the idea; Burgum says he may push for a vote to amend the constitution making the change.

In a column published Sunday in the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and distributed across Forum Communications websites, blogger Rob Port suggested that all this proves the need for closer supervision of college presidents, not greater autonomy.

In the Legislature, Scott Louser of Minot, assistant leader of the Republican supermajority in the state House, said he'd defend the smaller colleges in any reorganization attempt, and suggested that privatization might be a more secure future if resources were directed disproportionately to the research universities.

At UND, the chair of University Senate said his group, representing faculty, doesn't have a position on the chief-of-staff proposal. Speaking personally, geography professor Paul Todhunter called the agreement "unique," the Herald reported.

It might also be ill-timed, as the university system continues to cut programs and to offer staff and faculty buyouts in order to absorb budget cuts imposed by the governor and the Legislature. The context is that the governor is suggesting cuts while the Board of Higher Education is defending "needs based budget," and legislators are considering state employee raises in the low single digits.

Without the travel allowance, Foster's raise amounts to 26 percent.

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

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