McFeely: Bresciani's issue is one of perception, not lavishness
First things first: There will be no "investigation" of North Dakota State President Dean Bresciani's airfare to India, as this newspaper reported Thursday. A spokesperson for North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott said there will be a policy review since there isn't a hard and fast rule about the class in which a university president can fly, nor the amount they can spend.
Perhaps there will be some sort of concrete rule that comes out of this noncontroversy over Bresciani spending $8,300 on round-trip airfare to India to recruit graduate students for NDSU's science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields ... and perhaps not. But those foaming at the mouth that this will be the end of Bresciani — someone like Rep. Bob Skarphol of Tioga, for example, who started this whole waste of time with an email accusing Bresciani of wrongdoing — will be disappointed. My prediction is that this will be yet another minor bump in a long line of minor bumps during Bresciani's tenure.
Bresciani's biggest issue, I think, is one of perception more than lavishness. Yes, there have been manufactured kerfuffles over the president's use of a university airplane and a "chauffeur," but those led mainly to snide one-liners more than substantive backlash. Bresciani suffers the wrath of those who — stop me if you've heard this before — don't like NDSU and don't like him because he's the president of NDSU. Bresciani is the well-dressed, well-educated, well-spoken, well-paid, well-traveled outsider who is maybe just a little too polished to fit in around these parts.
A piece of advice for the president: You (and your staff) might want to watch your step with an extra dose of cautiousness because there are those who are going to scrutinize your every move and every penny you spend. Such is the price of being the slick guy at the university located in Imperial Cass County. Perhaps flying coach, even though it's a 14,500-mile round trip, is the penance you must pay. Perception, sometimes, is everything.
In some ways, Bresciani is paying the price for following Joseph Chapman. The previous president, often lauded as the hero who had the vision to move NDSU from Division II to Division I in athletics, had enough baggage to fill the terminal at Hector International Airport three times over. From the trainwreck that was the construction of the president's house to the stories of Chapman and his wife having staffers drive from north Fargo to south Fargo (where they were living temporarily) to take out their garbage and roll up extension cords, it was an interesting tenure. When Chapman took off to fly model airplanes in Colorado, he left behind a mess. Perhaps Bresciani is still taking some of the shrapnel.
That Bresciani and NDSU should even be in the crosshairs of Skarphol or anybody else is interesting enough. If you want to compare it to the state's other research university, the University of North Dakota, things are rolling along pretty good at NDSU. Research activity is through the roof, fundraising is up (thank you, Doosan and Bobcat), NDSU's enrollment in the all-important health care fields is way up, the budget issues inherited from Chapman are cleaned up, the athletic program streaks along ... the list goes on.
Up north, the hometown newspaper Grand Forks Herald ran an editorial urging interim President Ed Schafer to focus on what it viewed as critical immediate needs. Included was a $5 million budget shortfall, the never-ending nickname abyss and campus morale that is in the tank. The Herald quoted an email from a professor saying UND currently has "the poorest climate in the history of the university." Schafer's job is essentially to get things back on track before the new president takes over in six months.
And yet, somehow, there are those who want to run Bresciani out of the state.
It doesn't make any sense. Then again, taking into consideration the source of all the angst directed at Bresciani, maybe it makes perfect sense. Perhaps if the president limited his recruiting travels to Marmarth in a 1985 Dodge Omni, that would get Skarphol off his back.