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Local leaders dismayed over NDSU president leaving office

“That’s what stings the most,” former NDSU Student Body President Matthew Friedmann said, adding it feels like the board was not listening to the most important stakeholders — the students.

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North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani, right, attends class with electrical engineering student Robert Weisz as part of the Shadow a Student Challenge Wednesday, Oct. 23, in a Sudro Hall classroom. April Baumgarten / The Forum
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FARGO — News that the state higher education board asked North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani to step down left several business and education leaders surprised and disappointed, though one official defended the process as fair .

The State Board of Higher Education received several letters of support for Bresciani in the days leading up to a Tuesday, June 29, vote that asked the university head to leave the position by the end of 2022. Bresciani will continue at NDSU as a distinguished professor in human sciences and education after he steps down.

Erica Solberg, a former student board member whose last meeting was Tuesday, was the lone dissenting vote to the board’s decision.

Former board chair Nick Hacker, who remains a member, acknowledged receiving letters in support of Bresciani from former NDSU Student Body President Matthew Friedmann, local Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Shannon Full and Steve Swiontek, who served as a co-chair of the NDSU Foundation’s largest fundraising campaign in history.

Solberg wrote out what Friedmann, Swiontek and Full described as thoughtful responses.

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The remaining board members did not respond, the three said.

“That’s what stings the most,” Friedmann said, adding it feels like the board was not listening to the most important stakeholders — the students. “I tried to tell you, and I tried to express that, and you don’t even care enough to get back to me about it.”

Board Chair Casey Ryan, who took over Hacker’s position on Thursday, voted to offer Bresciani an 18-month contract that won’t be renewed. Ryan disagreed with the suggestion that board members didn’t consider stakeholder input and said he read all the documents associated with the matter, including a comprehensive evaluation for Bresciani finalized less than two weeks before the vote.

The evaluation, which included surveys taken by NDSU students, staff and faculty, was critical of Bresciani’s performance over the last year. It noted declining enrollment numbers, an “eroding” position of competitiveness among research institutions and hiring decisions that put NDSU’s reputation at risk, according to North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott.

Bresciani said in a June 17 response he was surprised and disappointed by the negative tone of the evaluation, which was prepared by Hagerott.

Swiontek questioned whether the process of giving evaluations needs to be reviewed. He also wondered if this decision could have an impact on the pool of future candidates who try to apply for top higher education positions in North Dakota.

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Ryan said he felt the evaluation was accurate, and the process, which was developed by the university and college presidents, was fair.

The board did not disclose why it decided to not give Bresciani a two-year renewable contract. The evaluation was discussed during an hours-long closed session.

Ryan said the board took everything from the evaluation and input from stakeholders into account.

“Whenever there’s change, there are people who won’t be happy,” Ryan said.

What was not discussed during the closed session was Bresciani’s defense of NDSU partnering with Planned Parenthood to provide sex education programs for teens and teachers, Ryan said. The programs were meant to prevent teen pregnancy but did not promote abortion, according to school officials.

State lawmakers approved legislation this year that banned colleges and universities from receiving matching public funds for private donations if they partnered with groups that supported abortion rights. Educators, including Bresciani, saw it as an attack on academic freedom.

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“That’s what people want to project when they don’t have all of the information,” Ryan said, adding Planned Parenthood was never brought up during the meeting.

Requests for phone interviews with Bresciani were not fulfilled by NDSU.

Impact on students

Business and education leaders have hailed Bresciani as a university president who cares about student, business and industry engagement. Full described Bresciani as a “big champion of this region.”

“It was very disappointing,” she said of the higher education board decision.

Bresciani has shown consistent and collaborative leadership, Full said. His engagement with students and local industries has helped keep students in North Dakota as they transition into the workforce, she said.

“There has never been a time that we haven't been able to pick up the phone and call Dean and get his support and engagement on key issues,” she said.

Bresciani told students they could email anytime, and he would respond within an hour, Friedmann said. The NDSU president listened to students and did everything he could to find solutions for campus problems, Friedmann said.

“And he really would,” the graduate said. “Students for Dean Bresciani were his most important stakeholder in the experience of NDSU. And I always thought that was so right on.”

Speaking as a private citizen, Solberg, who graduated this spring, said Bresciani’s impact and relationships with students have been one of his greatest accomplishments.

“Now as an NDSU alumna, I see how rare it is for a university president to truly value students' input,” she said. “President Bresciani went above and beyond to serve the students of North Dakota, and we are extremely fortunate for the sacrifices he made to make NDSU an incredible institution.”

Raising more than $400 million for In Our Hands, the fundraising campaign Swiontek co-chaired, wouldn’t have been possible without Bresciani, NDSU Foundation President and CEO John Glover said.

“I know that this place means more to him than I think most people will ever know,” Glover said.

Surprise and dismay

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said legislators didn’t know about the board's plans for Bresciani prior to the meeting, as far as he knows.

“I’m wondering myself what the deal was,” Wardner said of the board’s decision. “I’ve heard nothing going into it. Just all of the sudden, there it was.”

Though legislators disagreed with some of Bresciani’s decisions, Wardner said he felt the president did a great job.

Bresciani leaves behind big shoes to fill, Glover said. The NDSU president could balance the needs of students, staff and faculty while addressing legislative issues, Friedmann said.

“It was just such a disappointment to me to see the board not embrace him with that same enthusiasm,” Friedmann said, adding the higher education board will have to find someone who can measure up to Bresciani as they face challenges within the higher education industry.

He understands the board had to go into executive session to discuss Bresciani’s contract, but he said the job of government is to listen to the people being impacted by the decisions.

“It just feels so wrong,” Friedmann said. “I just feel very dismayed by the whole process.”

Ryan acknowledged that Bresciani did a lot of excellent work for NDSU, but said it is time to move forward.

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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