If Dean Bresciani Wants His Contract Discussions to Be Open to the Public He Should Request It Himself

From 2010 through today the North Dakota University System and its various component institutions and foundations have been found by the North Dakota Attorney General’s office to have violated state open records and open meetings laws no fewer than 19 times.

These violations represent just over 17 percent of all the open records/open meetings opinions the AG’s office has issued during that time. That’s a truly astounding percentage when you consider just how many public entities – city commissions, township boards, state committees, etc. – exist in this state.

Even now the university system seems a little hostile to transparency. Heading into the 2015 legislative session the NDUS wanted to exempt evaluations of university presidents from open records requests and narrow access to audit information. Heading into the next legislative session the university system plans to request legislation narrowing public access to information about potential university president hires.

I actually think they should maybe get that last request, but my larger point here is that the general general trend in higher education under past leadership has been toward the public knowing less.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]…it’s amusing to see boosters for embattled North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani suddenly trying to claim the moral high ground on transparency. Especially when Bresciani himself has been something less than amenable to the sunshine of public scrutiny in the past.[/mks_pullquote]

So it’s amusing to see boosters for embattled North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani suddenly trying to claim the moral high ground on transparency. Especially when Bresciani himself has been something less than amenable to the sunshine of public scrutiny in the past.

State Board of Higher Education member Kevin Melicher – a Bresciani loyalist, “team optometrist” for Bison athletics, and such a homer for NDSU that his confirmation process with the Legislature was a bit rocky – requested at a recent board meeting that the discussions concerning any new contract for Bresciani be held publicly.

Bresciani defender Mike McFeely wrote about Melicher’s request in a column, accusing SBHE President Kathy Neset – a critic of Bresciani’s and thus a blackguard to McFeely, et. al. – of being dismissive.

That this is Bresciani’s defenders working hard to stage manage the inevitable discussion over the president’s new contract is transparent. It’s just another front in the political war to keep Bresciani in Fargo.

I should point out that holding such contract discussions in executive session is both routine and public. Chapter 44-04 of the North Dakota Century Code explicitly allows it. Notably, however, the law does not require that such discussions be in executive session. And if President Bresciani would like his contract discussed publicly he should stop speaking through his surrogates and just make an official request for it.

I’d welcome it. I’ve fought long and hard to ensure that all aspects of university system business are done out in the public eye. In fact, back in 2014 it was my complaint to the AG’s office which opened up an illegally closed SBHE meeting (presided over by former SBHE president turned Democratic legislative candidate Kirsten Diederich) at which a consultant identified a president that was clearly Bresciani as one of the university system’s problems (audio here).

I’d very much like to hear Bresciani’s critics on the SBHE speak plainly and openly about his problems. They have been understandably reticent to do so in the past given the amount of political pressure and backlash any criticism of NDSU can inspire (anyone who has been on the receiving end of hate mail from rabid Bison fans knows how true this is).

But the board has communicated to us that they have some problems with Bresciani. After all, they approved contract extensions for all the other presidents but him earlier this year.

So let’s hear them articulate their case.

But only if President Bresciani requests it. After all, it’s his contract.

Bresciani is an obstacle to the sound, unified governance of higher education in North Dakota. He’s popular in the Fargo business community and, at least superficially, on his campus (many faculty members and students say they’re afraid to speak out) but he is deeply unpopular with a vast swath of state government including the Legislature for a veritable buffet of excellent reasons.

That’s not good for NDSU, that’s not good for Fargo, and it’s not good for the State of North Dakota.

The board should make their case against Bresciani, decline to issue him a new contract, and then begin the process of finding a new president for NDSU.

Dragging this out longer is no help to anyone.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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