Lloyd Omdahl: In the shadow of Tom Clifford

Lloyd Omdahl
Lloyd Omdahl

It is unfortunate we must hang our dirty linen before the whole state to address the selection of a new president for UND. However, it is a fair subject for a statewide columnist because we are talking about the University of North Dakota and not the University of Grand Forks.

After paying some $100,000 for headhunters to find candidates for the presidency and financing a long, tedious screening process, we are ending up with the wrong president.

Since Tom Clifford left we have gone through a series of presidents and a couple of interims, all short-termers making long-term decisions.

To my recollection, Tom was the best president the university ever had. He left shoes too big for successors and we won’t quit measuring new presidents against him until all memory of his leadership is gone.

At the outset, Tom did not have much support among university people. He was not on the final list of candidates recommended to the Board of Higher Education. Many on the campus shivered at the idea of having a president without an earned doctorate.


Slowly through the years, however, he proved himself to be better than an earned doctorate.

After the nominating committee passed on their recommendations, Tom had a couple of friends on the board who championed his cause, according to the late Gov. George Sinner, who was on the board at the time. They burned the phone lines and urged fellow board members to break tradition and choose Tom anyway. They did and the university benefited for 20 years.

Tom’s success can be attributed to a number of factors – he didn’t have a doctorate, he knew when to be flexible, he was personable, he cared about students, he understood North Dakota politics and he was downright charming. As a native North Dakotan, he knew the state.

According to Mason’s rules for legislative bodies, proceedings are to be formal, independent and devoid of personalities to the point of referring to other members of the body as “the senator from District 18,” etc. The Senate honors most of the rules, but the House has yet to read them.

With this perspective, I once was presiding in the Senate when the appropriation bill for the universities came up. Somebody moved to divide the question, with a separate vote on the appropriations for each university. On the roll call, each institution squeaked by with a vote or two to spare.

The appropriation for UND was last. It was defeated by one vote. The chamber was stunned.

Casting all of Mason’s formalities aside, Sen. Evan Lips of Bismarck sprang from his chair and blurted: “We can’t do this to Tom.” It said a lot about how North Dakota functions.

One of the senators who had voted “No” moved to reconsider. The motion passed easily. The appropriations were then consolidated and the Senate voted down the whole thing.


So the question is: who in the Senate will rise to her/his feet to speak up meaningfully for a short-term, somewhat unknown president.

While the current search committee shackled itself to rules that defeated the purpose of a search committee, the Board of Higher Education lacks the courage to reach outside of the recommended nominees and appoint Interim President Joshua Wynne who had already proven his worth as a university leader.

Because his position as interim president precluded his application for the position, that technicality kept him from being considered. And because we let procedure control the process, we passed up the best possible candidate and will mark time training a new president for some bigger school.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former professor at UND and state lieutenant governor.

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