On Shooting the Messenger
The reaction to the controversy surrounding NDSU President Dean Bresciani has been pretty fierce, and there has been a lot of invective hurled at myself and my employers at Forum Communications Company over the matter. Some of it from rabid football fans. Some of it from loyal alumni. Some of it from competing media outlets.
The criticism seems to break down into three broad and often overlapping categories:
- The criticism of Bresciani is motivated by FCC losing its bid for the rights to broadcast NDSU Bison athletics events
- The criticism of Bresciani is motivated by a cabal of anti-NDSU lawmakers and/or UND fans
- The criticism of Bresciani is unwarranted because NDSU is doing great (see: football championships)
The problem with these criticisms is that they’re bunk. I’ll explain why.
First, and foremost, the idea that this is all a plot to punish Bresciani for not accepting FCC’s bid for broadcast rights simply doesn’t fit with the facts. Namely, that NDSU and Bresciani picked this fight. It was NDSU which decided to implement draconian new restrictions on journalists working for media outlets which don’t own broadcast rights. These restrictions were almost universally panned when they were announced, by both local and national media outlets, and rightfully so. They were terrible. Bresciani has since been criticized for lying about his handling of that controversy. Again, rightfully so.
If NDSU hadn’t decided to try and institute very stupid media restrictions, and if Bresciani hadn’t lied about his handling of those restrictions, we wouldn’t be where we’re at.
Let’s not shoot the messenger.
Also, for my part, I can tell you that I didn’t get some edict from my employers at FCC to dig up dirt on Bresciani once the company lost the bid. In fact, nobody from FCC has ever told me what to write about. Ever.
Second, I can say that my criticism of NDSU and Bresciani is not motivated by any fealty in the UND versus NDSU rivalry. I have been quite critical of UND and former President Robert Kelley in the past as well. In fact, I think Bresciani and Kelley share a lot of the same leadership weaknesses, not to mention the same poor and misguided priorities. Both were bad hires. Kelley is gone now. I hope Bresciani follows him.
And sure, there are plenty of lawmakers who dislike Bresciani. The man has done a very good job of alienating a lot (I would argue perhaps even most) of the state’s legislative body. He’s arrogant. He’s rude. He’s defiant. When you’re the president of a public, state-owned institution you aren’t going to make a lot of friends with state leaders behaving like that.
Third, NDSU is not doing great. And football championships don’t count.
Financially the school is in a poor position. Columnist Mike Jacobs, who has called for Bresciani to resign, wrote yesterday that the president has ignored in all but the most superficial of ways Governor Jack Dalrymple’s order for budget allotments. “His sleight of hand produced a reduction on paper but no real savings,” Jacobs wrote. “This leaves NDSU vulnerable now that still further cuts are necessary because of declining state revenues.”
NDSU recently got strong financial marks from Moody’s Analytics (the same folks who can’t seem to accurately forecast our state’s tax revenues), but those marks were based in no small part on the money raised by the NDSU Development Foundation. An organization that has long argued that it is separate from the public institution it supports, and private. How in the world can we say that this is an accurate picture of NDSU’s finances when dollars from a separate, private organization over which the NDSU administration has no control are being counted?
Academically the school isn’t doing well either. Just roughly a quarter of students graduate from NDSU on time with a four year degree. Just roughly half of students graduate after six years. When state lawmakers, and Chancellor Mark Hagerott, told Bresciani that he should focus on improving these completion rates the president was defiant insisting that he’d focus on rapid enrollment growth instead.
Bresciani has the wrong priorities for NDSU, and when told to change those priorities by state leaders – including people who are directly in charge of overseeing his performance – he resists.
In summary, what people need to remember is that this blow up over the media restrictions isn’t just some isolated incident. Bresciani has been a consistent problem for state and university system leaders for years now. For some – including, apparently, the Fargo Forum editorial board – the media restrictions were the last straw. But others, including myself, have been banging this drum for a while now.
Because we objectively feel he’s doing a poor job serving NDSU, and that’s bad for the state. Because NDSU is an important institution in North Dakota and the region.
Others may disagree. That’s fine. But there are simply too many conspiracy theories out there about why Bresciani is always in hot water.
Maybe the simplest explanation – that he’s just not that good at his job – is the correct one.