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OUR OPINION: Keep Hanson on the list for NDSU president

In 1970, the UND presidential search committee forwarded a list of names to the State Board of Higher Education. The board looked at the list, then asked the committee for more names.

In 1970, the UND presidential search committee forwarded a list of names to the State Board of Higher Education. The board looked at the list, then asked the committee for more names.

As most North Dakotans know, the board wound up choosing a candidate on that second list: Tom Clifford.

The current board should do something similar regarding the presidency of North Dakota State University.

NDSU's presidential search committee voted last week to eliminate interim President Richard Hanson from further consideration. That was a mistake. Hanson may or may not be the best person for the presidency; casual observers don't know him well enough to judge.

But he certainly deserves to be a finalist. And the board ought to make a point of naming him a finalist, even if they wind up hiring someone else.

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Why?

Because Hanson has been upfront about NDSU's finances -- even though that decision made him the bearer of bad news.

Even though he must have suspected that would hurt his standing on campus. And even though that, in turn, would hurt his prospects to win the presidency, as in fact it has.

That kind of ethical leadership takes guts. It should be rewarded, not punished, by the board, to set an example for every president in the state.

Furthermore, it's exactly the kind of honesty NDSU's next president will need if he or she is to fix the problems Hanson uncovered and reinvigorate the university's growth.

The board should demand no less. The Legislature will demand no less.

Hanson's actions have given NDSU the breathing room it needs to consolidate its gains.

Judging by the comments on newspaper stories in Fargo and elsewhere, many at NDSU wish the board could clone former President Joe Chapman or find someone just like him. But Chapman's brand of magic probably will work only once. That's because like most magic, his depended in part on an illusion. And lawmakers won't fall for the same trick twice.

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As economist, Herald columnist and former Board of Higher Education member Ralph Kingsbury has pointed out, the illusion was that NDSU's growth was easy and at no cost to the state. It was -- at first.

After all, the marginal cost of adding a few new students is small. The new students' tuition dollars more than pay for it.

But once that growth gets into the hundreds or thousands of students, then tuition revenue isn't enough. New faculty must be hired, new classrooms and dormitories must be built. And soon administrators are faced with the fact that tuition only pays for about a third of the total cost of educating a student, Kingsbury writes.

The other two-thirds must come from somewhere.

Not even Chapman was skilled enough to fully wrangle it from the state.

"Chapman took a sleepy, medium-sized school on the American prairie and turned it into a leading well-known agricultural and technical school of higher learning," Kingsbury wrote earlier this month.

"But he did so, and the board let him do so without securing the added money from the state that it will take to support and sustain that expansion."

That's the situation NDSU finds itself in, as the audit in April likely will confirm.

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So, the question NDSU supporters must ask themselves is this:

What kind of candidate is most likely to win support not just from the NDSU community, but from the state?

Another Chapman, with all of the hard feelings that the former president inspired in Bismarck and elsewhere?

Or a Hanson (or someone like him), with the knack of winning over skeptics by being open and up front?

Chapman made NDSU feel good about itself. That was his genius, and his revved-up deans and department heads kicked the school up a notch.

But that's not what's needed today. Today, the school needs a leader who'll make the state -- really, the Legislature, including lawmakers from Grand Forks and everywhere else -- feel good about NDSU.

Hanson's that kind of leader. The board should make sure he's a finalist.

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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