MIKE JACOBS: Can North Dakota build a university system?

In a look-ahead column published on Dec. 8, I said that North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani would be one of the stories to watch in 2016.

Mike Jacobs
Herald Publisher Mike Jacobs

In a look-ahead column published on Dec. 8, I said that North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani would be one of the stories to watch in 2016.

Now it's February, and Bresciani is under fire again.

So, the decision about the nature of higher education in the state grows more urgent.

The latest object of attention is that Bresciani spent more than $8,000 for the best ticket available on a flight to India, where he sought graduate students for NDSU's research programs. The problem is not the trip, but the price of the ticket-and the comfort in which Bresciani traveled. Coach class tickets were available for much less. Another problem is that the state forbids first-class travel. Bresciani didn't exactly violate the policy. He worked around it, buying a business-class ticket.

There's bigger trouble, as Rob Port showed on his Say Anything blog: Bresciani dissembled. In a campuswide email, he claimed that enthusiastic supporters of NDSU had "volunteered" to pay for the ticket. But earlier, he had told the chancellor that he'd asked for the money from NDSU's alumni foundation.


Port wrote that he had to call on a legislator to get details of Bresciani's travel. NDSU wanted a big fee to make the material available.

Add lack of transparency to the indictment against Bresciani.

Another part involves airplanes. Bresciani ran up a big bill using them to travel from Fargo to Bismarck, campus to Capitol.

Even on the ground, Bresciani's travel choices raised criticism. During the legislative session, he had a campus police officer drive him to Bismarck. The officer remains on his staff as a bodyguard and chauffeur.

All of this seemed a little too self-important, a little too self-indulgent for legislative taste.

This only embellished the unhappiness, though, because criticism of Bresciani goes well beyond his travel choices

Cases in point:

Earlier this year, NDSU announced an increase in fees, amounting to as much as 35 percent for many students. This works around the wishes of legislators, who'd imposed a tuition cap.


Fees aren't tuition, exactly, but ...

Two years ago, Bresciani unilaterally raised tuition at NDSU after lawmakers made clear they wanted tuition rates held down.

Bresciani acted on his own in this and other cases:

He set enrollment goals for NDSU well beyond those the system office had in mind.

He engineered NDSU's takeover of a nursing program operated by Sanford Health Systems without getting approval from the Board of Higher Education.

He continued to insist that the university system's computer center should be on his campus, even after the board decided it should stay at UND.

After the Legislature moved attorneys from campuses to the attorney general's office, Bresciani found another work-around. He made NDSU's attorney his chief of staff.

He abruptly suspended a nanotechnology program that had political patrons.


All this amounts to opportunism, at least, and unilateralism, too.

He took an active part in-some think he was the instigator of-the presidents' revolt that destroyed the previous chancellor's tenure and maybe career.

There's a pattern in these cases. Bresciani hasn't been a team player. His choice to "work around" could amount to insubordination. It's drawn attention at the Legislature, at the Board of Higher Education offices, on blogs and in newspapers.

Then there was the mess at NDSU's foundation.

Oh! Bresciani's not responsible for the foundation.

To this longish list of issues, add this context: NDSU's not doing well on its key missions. On education: It takes six years to get half of each entering class to graduation. Only a fourth gets through in four years. On research: A key rating agency downgraded NDSU to second tier late last year.

The wise woman sitting across the table from me advises that I should draw a line under all of the above, and then write, "Five national championships."

Bresciani said he'd build NDSU's athletic success with scholarships supplied by donors. He raised student fees to support athletics.


More dissembling there.

Besides, he's not the coach. He is the president of North Dakota's land grant university-a university that's supposed to be part of something called the North Dakota University System.

Higher education hasn't functioned as a system, largely because the presidents of the research universities have resisted-especially the presidents of NDSU. So far, that's cost two chancellors.

UND, the other research university, will have a new president later this year. Interviews to winnow the field are underway this week.

One of the candidates is Steve Shirley, now president of Minot State University, the third largest of the state's public universities. He's been in that job two years. Earlier he was president of Valley City State University.

He's a North Dakota native. He has three degrees from UND, including a couple from the business school and a doctorate in higher-ed teaching and learning. He's been president of two units of North Dakota's system, Minot and Valley City. One member of the UND search committee described him as "a rock star." Certainly, he's popular with the board and the Legislature.

Shirley's not a shoo-in, of course.

Whoever gets the job at UND will be expected to be a team player, part of the North Dakota University System.


The NDSU president should be, too.

That's the recipe for building a strong university system.

Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Herald. Readers can reach him at .

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