State lawmakers are buzzing over a first class trip North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani has taken to India, the latest chapter in what has become a veritable saga of bad blood between the Legislature and the head of the state’s largest university.
On January 17 state Rep. Bob Skarphol, a Republican from Tioga, sent out an email to his fellow lawmakers questioning Bresciani’s trip. “I have heard rumors that the President of NDSU is currently in India recruiting students to help enable the 18000 student number at NDSU,” Skarphol wrote. “I find it very disturbing that we have the taxpayers of North Dakota being forced to subsidize the education of international students to advance the hypothetical status of an institution.”
The “18000 student number” Skarphol refers to is some controversy from last year over Bresciani’s announcement of his intention to grow NDSU’s enrollment to that figure, despite reservations expressed by lawmakers and North Dakota University System officials.
I made an open records request for information pertaining to the trip, and sure enough Bresciani flew to Bengaluru (also known as Bangalore) on January 15 by way of Paris. And notice the seat assignments. According to SeatGuru.com, that’s first class seating.
The total approved cost of the trip is $12,793 including $8,293 for airfare and $4,500 in meals, transportation, etc.
Bresciani was quick to respond to Skarphol’s email, which was apparently forwarded to him by state Senator Tim Mathern (D-Fargo). He sent an email with “talking points” about the trip to NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott who apparently wasn’t aware of it.
So Bresciani says this isn’t about undergraduate recruitment, nor will any students coming to NDSU to “study abroad” be a burden on the taxpayers. That does seem to jibe with the justification for the trip submitted for approval:
You still have to wonder how one of our university presidents can spend upwards of $12,000 on a trip like this without even looping the Chancellor in on the purpose of the trip before buying the plane tickets.
I asked Rep. Skarphol about that. “I can’t speak for the chancellor, but I’ve spoken to the president of the board and she didn’t know he was gone,” he said referring to State Board of Higher Education President Kathy Neset. “I suspect the chancellor didn’t know it either based on that email. I think they ought to know if there’s international travel involved.”
Skarphol expressed concerns about this lack of awareness on such lengthy and expensive trips, saying that without oversight there’s a possibility of abuse. “If a [university] president is traveling I think it’s appropriate that the state board and the Legislature know who is paying for it,” he said. “Because it would be very easy to act inappropriately with regard to contracts if there were some beneficial side benefits.
“We don’t know how often these guys are gone,” Skarphol added. “I suspect the board doesn’t either.”
What this illustrates, once again, is the utter lack of trust between many in the Legislature and Bresciani whose current contract expires on June 30.
Maybe there isn’t anything wrong with Bresciani’s trip to India. Maybe it’s all for the betterment of NDSU and the State of North Dakota. But you’ve got to think that there’s a better way to do this sort of thing than to defend the trip to skeptical lawmakers after you’ve already flown yourself to the other side of the globe.
And Skarphol makes a solid point. Again, is it a good thing when one of our highest-paid state officials can travel to India first class without his immediate supervisors even being aware of it?