Yesterday evening, after we got news that the State Board of Higher Education had renewed the contract of every president under review except NDSU President Dean Bresciani, I spoke with board president Kathy Neset about the decision.
She stressed to me that the board, which voted 7-1 in favor of delaying a renewal of Bresciani’s contract, wanted to send a message by treating the NDSU president’s contract differently than those of the other presidents.
“We have some items we would like to see improvement on,” she told me. “We have four items that were identified through the evaluation process and through board and system work that need improvement and need to be more than just ‘let’s fix this’. It needs to be, we would like to see, an environment of furthering the mission of NDSU through the dedicated work of the president.”
“The first one just permeates everything, she told me. “It’s enhance communication. Communication with the board. Communication with the system office. Communication with the other universities and colleges.” She added that Bresciani’s communication is “not up to the standard that the system needs.”
[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]”The downgrade happened at a point in early 2016 and yet the board was not notified of this until several months later. There was a delay.”[/mks_pullquote]
As an example of the lack of communication, she pointed news of downgrade in a research classification for NDSU the news of which board members felt was kept from them.
“There was an issue with the downgrade of the Carnegie Classification with research measuring,” she said. “The downgrade happened at a point in early 2016 and yet the board was not notified of this until several months later. There was a delay.”
You can see my post on the classification downgrade, which I believe was the first report of it in the North Dakota media, right here.
Research needs improvement
Referencing the Carnegie downgrade, Neset said Bresciani should have brought “something of that magnitude” to the board immediately, describing it as “troubling” especially since the board considers NDSU’s research efforts the second area where Bresciani needs improvement.
In his recent evaluation of Bresciani, upon which the board’s contract decision was partially based, Chancellor Mark Hagerott voiced concern that NDSU had fallen in the Carnegie Classification and that Bresciani had targeted a research initiative for a cut.
Speaking of research, Neset said Bresciani’s lack of “teamwork and collaboration” with UND on research initiatives was a third area of concern.
A lack of teamwork
“By working together we lift both institutions to a higher level. We are not in competition with one another. We are on the same team,” Neset said. “There have been instances cited where there was not a sense of unity and collaboration to the point where NDSU was not working with UND to elevate North Dakota.”
When asked for specifics Neset said she would “defer to the research personnel at UND for that” but added that there “were instances cited by them” and “times that NDSU research department was not working in lockstep with UND on issues that should have been collaborative.”
The fourth and final area of improvement, according to Neset, was in complying with state technology law.
A lack of compliance with state technology law
“We are out of compliance with state law on IT details at NDSU,” she said. “The legislature sets standards and they set direction for the universities. NDSU has gone out of compliance. They have not embraced Office 365 which was supposed to be a system wide use of an IT system.”
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]”We are out of compliance with state law on IT details at NDSU,” she said. “The legislature sets standards and they set direction for the universities. NDSU has gone out of compliance.”[/mks_pullquote]
Neset said the IT issues weren’t “specifically mentioned” in Hagerott’s evaluation but noted that “the board felt this was a very big issue that needed to be addressed.”
In 2014 I obtained through an open records request emails in which Vice Chancellor Lisa Feldner expressed a lack of trust between NDSU and the university system over the consolidation of email systems. Bresciani resisted consolidation of email services ordered by the Legislature, and issued a press release at the time saying they would be moving to their own email system.
“I just saw their internal news release and it ticked me off too,” Feldner wrote to Deputy Chief Information Officer Darin King in a June 30 email.
“Yep, this is a classic power play,” King replied. “Get an inch and try for a mile.”
Bresciani has also clashed with lawmakers over open records requests for his emails. “In 2013, Bresciani and NDSU were accused of deleting tens of thousands of emails lawmakers wanted that pertained to controversial former University Chancellor Hamid Shirvani. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office investigated and concluded in an opinion that NDSU violated state open records laws. The part of the investigation into whether Bresciani or NDSU employees purposefully destroyed the emails was inconclusive.
Bresciani has claimed the university system accessing his emails was “an extreme and inappropriate invasion of my professional and personal privacy.”
Giving Bresciani a chance
“Tabling this contract and putting a timeline on it gives us an opportunity to further evaluate, but also to define clear metrics to do this and to clearly measure that we are meeting the expectations of the board,” Neset said of the board’s decision yesterday.
“We want to assist Dr. Bresciani,” she added.
So what happens next?
“This will be a process that will start right away with the chancellor working with a board member to develop these goals further and to set clear metrics so that both the board and Dr. Bresciani know when they’ve been met,” she said.
“We want to make sure that this is very clear, and very measurable, and Dr. Bresciani can be accountable for them,” Neset added. “Then the board comes back in November and addresses that and re-evaluates. As it stands now the current contract is the one that’s in place.”
“I think that this is a significant issue for the board. We spent over two hours in executive session discussing these contracts. I will say that the board was very professional, very caring, they really exercised respect and statesmanship among themselves,” she continued. “To look back on it, it was a very respectful method to evaluate these contracts.”
But Neset, again, wanted to make it clear that Bresciani has something to prove.
“There is a significant difference in not awarding the contract to Dr. Bresciani at this time,” she said. “That is truly the board’s desire to foster an environment to improve the work at NDSU from Dr. Bresciani.”