NDSU can become stronger if it takes on one-university approach, presidential candidate Debra Larson says

The California State University Chico provost and vice president of academic affairs is the second candidate to visit campus. Former University of Texas Tyler President Michael Tidwell will speak Friday.

California State University Chico Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Debra Larson speaks during an open forum Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in the Oceti Sakowin Ballroom of the Memorial Union of North Dakota State University. Larson is the second candidate for NDSU president to visit the campus.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

FARGO — North Dakota State University has all the pieces it needs to be successful and a first-choice school, and Debra Larson said she wants to bind that all together to form a one-university concept.

“You need to start distinguishing ourselves from other people,” the provost and vice president of academic affairs from California State University in Chico said Thursday, Jan. 27, at the campus' Memorial Union.

Larson is the second candidate to visit NDSU as a presidential candidate for the school. If she is chosen to replace President Dean Bresciani, she would become the first woman to lead the university.

NDSU has strengths and opportunities to do important work, Larson said when asked what attracted her to the school. She said the school feels like it has three separate missions: land grant, research and student success.

“It's very important these core elements of a public state university are fitting together as one university,” she said.


Larson touted her lifetime of experiences from different backgrounds. She grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from a family that owns auto parts stores throughout upper Michigan and northern Wisconsin.

She also worked as a civil engineer for 10 years. She was the first engineering dean of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

She described that school as being confused about what it was, with rankings dropping when she arrived. She said she helped transform that school by identifying strengths, repairing relationships and "growing momentum with corporate partnerships."

Under her leadership, the school became a top school for undergraduate engineering education in the nation, she said. She also noted the school’s student population grew from 5,000 to 6,500 during her tenure.

NDSU’s enrollment has dropped over the past seven years. The university is implementing strategies to turn that around, Larson said. NDSU shouldn’t just focus on recruiting students but should also build a culture of retention and support for students, she said.

“I think we often forget that because we see that enrollment number, and we think that that's just the incoming students, but it's actually much more,” she said.

NDSU faculty and students have asked the next president to listen closely to their concerns and act on them. She said she works with different teams and has made bold changes in respectful ways.

“I think I've been very successful because I respect shared governance,” she said.


Diversity and inclusion also has come up in discussions regarding the next president. A lot of studying and talking about the topic has happened, but it is important to move that into actionable goals, she said. She said she would be committed to having a more diverse administration.

When asked about Chico’s lack of a football team, Larson noted Cal Poly and Northern Arizona State University, where she was hired as a professor, have Division I football teams in the Big Sky Conference. The Cal Poly Mustangs previously played NDSU, she said.

She said she feels comfortable working with athletics. NDSU has a fantastic athletic program that is dedicated to students getting their degrees, she added.

Five candidates were invited by a search committee to North Dakota for in-person interviews and public forums. Former University of Texas Tyler President Michael Tidwell will come to NDSU’s campus Friday, Jan. 28.

The committee is expected to name three finalists on Feb. 4. Those candidates will be interviewed by the State Board of Higher Education, which will pick the next president.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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