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McFeely: Melicher tries to shine light on Bresciani talks

FARGO-Kevin Melicher's request seemed like a reasonable one. Tucked near the end of the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education meeting this week, the Fargo board member asked that discussions about Dean Bresciani's contract be done in the open.

North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani.
North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani.
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FARGO-Kevin Melicher's request seemed like a reasonable one. Tucked near the end of the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education meeting this week, the Fargo board member asked that discussions about Dean Bresciani's contract be done in the open.

So, you know, the public can know what's going on with the leader of the state's highest-profile university.

Melicher asked that the board's discussion and decision at its Nov. 16 meeting on whether to renew the North Dakota State University president's contract be made part of the regular agenda, as opposed to being discussed in executive session.

"It is time to make that decision and add this to our regular agenda, and in the spirit of fairness, total openness and transparency, not in executive session," Melicher said.

The difference? Items on the regular agenda fall under the auspices of the state's open-meetings laws, while things squirreled away in executive session do not. In other words, regular agenda items are public information, while executive sessions are not.

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Might as well have everything out in the open, so everybody knows where everybody stands. Right?

By the reaction of chairwoman Kathy Neset, you'd have thought Melicher asked his fellow board members to strip naked and march through Bison football tailgating singing "Fight On Sioux."

There was a long, awkward pause. There might have been crickets chirping in the background as everybody at the Skyped meeting did their best Marcel Marceau impersonation.

Finally, Neset gave the ultimate pat on the head to the Fargo optometrist and Bresciani supporter before trying to ignore what happened.

"Thank you for your words, Dr. Melicher," she said before going to the next agenda item.

Thank you for your words. Thank you for wasting oxygen saying them. Thank you for using a few seconds of our precious time proposing something that's never going to happen. Thank you for thinking unicorns are real. Thank you for believing in the Great Pumpkin. Thank you for your words.

And just like that, the board was on to the next thing. No discussion of Melicher's idea, no reaction as to whether it had any merit.

It does, of course. When the board spent almost three hours in executive session at its June meeting discussing Bresciani's job performance, and perhaps personal traits that grind on some board members, very little of what was discussed became public. Board members referred all comments to Neset, who spoke in general terms about areas in which Bresciani needed to improve if he hoped to not get run out of town. Communication, collaboration and other buzzwords were cited.

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But, really, nobody knew what Neset and other board members actually talked about for three hours. Although, it should be noted Neset earlier used a flap over controversial media restrictions imposed by NDSU's athletic department to publicly hammer Bresciani over his communications skills. Her public comments about Bresciani were not met with glee by other members of the board, including Melicher, according to e-mails since made public.

An independent investigation by Kansas attorney Kathy Perkins cleared Bresciani of violating board policy in the media controversy-he didn't know about the restrictions before they were imposed-although Perkins did say better communication could have minimized the storm.

Neset cited the Perkins report during this week's board meeting, but withheld comment on it and said the board would review Bresciani's contract status at next month's meeting.

That's when Melicher chimed in and was met with an Alberta Clipper by his fellow board members.

Having a public discussion about Bresciani's employment status should not be seen as some sort of exotic request by Melicher. The NDSU president is polarizing, no question, but his popularity on his campus, in the Fargo business community and among many state legislators should be reason enough to let the sun shine on the debate over whether he will keep his job.

There's nothing to be afraid of. The state board, presumably, consists of the bright stars of North Dakota's power circles. These are successful people who have made many important decisions before. They were appointed by Gov. Jack Dalrymple to oversee a half-billion dollar system. Surely they are not afraid of letting the public know where they stand on the NDSU president.

If board members have a problem with Bresciani, and clearly some (perhaps even a majority) do, they should be willing to let the public know in specific terms. If they believe NDSU's graduation rates are not up to snuff, there is nothing controversial about that. If they believe he's not a good enough team player, there's nothing vexing about that.

And, hey, if some want to deep-six Bresciani simply because they view him as arrogant-well, they should have the backbone to admit it publicly. They're on the board. It's within their power to get rid of the NDSU president, or keep him. Just have the guts to own your decision, whatever one it is.

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The honorable president at the University of North Dakota forced coaches and student-athletes to publicly humiliate themselves before the world so their sports wouldn't be axed. The higher ed board should be adult enough do its dirty work in public, without the comfort of closed doors. Members can do this by discussing Bresciani as a regular agenda item and refusing to go into executive session.

North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani.
Mike McFeely, Oct. 17, 2015Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Related Topics: EDUCATIONDEAN BRESCIANI
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