NDSU Boosters Rallying Around Dean Bresciani

Last week I wrote that the State Board of Higher Education was split on whether or not to renew NDSU President Dean Bresciani’s contract at an upcoming meeting this week or to let him move on.

Since that post the NDSU boosters in the media and elsewhere have been circling the wagons around their guy. One of the most prominent (and perhaps silliest) examples is NDSU professor Tom Isern suggesting in a much-shared Facebook note that the reason some thing Bresciani should go is because NDSU has just been too darn successful.

Unfortunately, Mr. Isern’s case for Bresciani is long on generalities and short on specifics. But let me provide some specifics for the case against Bresciani.

Here’s a big one: Just 25 percent of NDSU students graduate on time with a four-year degree; 53 percent graduate after six years.

I don’t care how many football championships NDSU has won. I don’t care what ranking the university has in some index of institutions that gobble up research dollars. The first priority for NDSU, the primary reason for its existence, is serving North Dakota students. And in that area NDSU is doing poorly. Students who start at NDSU are either leaving the university to finish their degrees elsewhere or, worse, failing to graduate at all.

Meanwhile, despite a mediocre track record in serving current levels of enrollment at the school, Bresciani wants to push ahead with plans to inflate his school’s enrollment to 18,000 students – a nearly 25 percent increase in the next five years for a school where enrollment grew less than 1 percent over the previous five years.

At a school that has been balancing the books by deferring nearly a quarter billion dollars in maintenance to its facilities.

After Bresciani warred with his former boss, Chancellor Hamid Shirvani, his push for enrollment inflation has put him into conflict with current Chancellor Mark Hagerott. When Bresciani announced his enrollment plans Hagerott gently echoed the sentiments of state lawmakers by suggesting NDSU might have better priorities like retention and graduation rates for the students the school already has.

Bresciani responded with a forceful column in the state’s newspapers. “At North Dakota State University, we’ve heard the message loud and clear and will do our part by raising enrollment to 18,000 students over the next five years,” he wrote.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]“To prove that he was a team player, Bresciani could have let the chancellor have the last public word and discussed their differences off-camera,” former Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl wrote in a November column. “Instead, he chose to push back in the newspapers. Apparently, he doesn’t want to be a team player.”[/mks_pullquote]

“To prove that he was a team player, Bresciani could have let the chancellor have the last public word and discussed their differences off-camera,” former Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl wrote in a November column. “Instead, he chose to push back in the newspapers. Apparently, he doesn’t want to be a team player.”

In his Facebook post Isern turns up his nose at this idea that Bresciani isn’t a team player, suggesting that it’s just another example of anti-Fargo jealousy, but not only is it true it’s of vital importance for the North Dakota University System going forward. After years of turmoil and scandal which featured at its heart arrogant university presidents pushing back against governance from the State Board of Higher Education and various chancellors, the university system is very close to the dawn of a new more tranquil era.

With better leadership on the state board, and a strong and forward-looking chancellor in Mark Hagerott, the last obstacle to a unified and functional university system going forward is Bresciani.

Though, really, not just Bresciani but also the toxic crowd of football crazed alumni, Fargo civic leaders, and hometown media personalities who are quick to launch a turf war any time problems at NDSU are brought to light. It’s almost like these people don’t care that Bresciani is doing a poor job. That NDSU is falling well short of its potential when it comes to serving students and the state.

All they see is football championships. All they see is a university president who wants to pack more students onto the NDSU campus, which is great for businesses like bars and restaurants and retail stores and hotels in Fargo, but maybe not so great for the academic mission NDSU is supposed to be pursuing.

The NDSU boosters may win this fight. They have a lot of clout. One need look no further than Chancellor Hagerott’s tepid criticism of Bresciani in his most recent evaluation to see that. Hagerott is no doubt wary of what happened to his predecessors like Shirvani and Robert Potts when they were too sharp in their criticism of the NDSU president.

But neither NDSU nor the State of North Dakota would be served well by Bresciani staying. His quantity-over-quality approach to higher education is a bad one, and his propensity to meet direction from the Board of Higher Education and the Legislature with defiance will only mean more scandal and turmoil going forward.

In a just world Bresciani would have been sent packing years ago, back when he was flying in a university-owned private airplane from Fargo and Bismarck – at a cost of thousands of dollars a flight – to complain about how underfunded his university is. Today the question is whether or not the board will have the gumption to send him packing or if they’ll bow to the rank parochialism coming from Fargo.

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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