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McFeely: Everyone has advice for NDSU's new president, and he's happy to listen

In the midst of a statewide tour, David Cook says "everything has been extremely positive."

Dave Cook.jpg
North Dakota State University president David Cooks visits with an NDSU supporter in Wahpeton, North Dakota, on Monday, July 18, 2022.
Mike McFeely / The Forum
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WAHPETON, N.D. — There is no shortage of advice for David Cook, North Dakota State University's new president. He seems, thus far, to be taking it all in good humor.

"When you're a new president, you get a lot of advice. That's part of the gig, I guess," Cook told a room filled with NDSU supporters Monday, July 18, at Corteva Agriscience just outside this agriculture-centric Red River Valley city 45 minutes south of Fargo. "I did have one person give me a lot of advice. I thought the meeting was over, but they got out an index card that had 14 pieces of advice for me that they wanted to go through. We got to No. 9 and I said, 'I have to go.' I was actually meeting coach Entz that day for the first time formally."

That would be Bison football head coach Matt Entz.

Priorities, priorities.

It was a joke, folks, so everybody from Mapleton to Mott to Minot can relax. In his brief remarks to the NDSU boosters and in a 10-minute interview prior to the event, Cook was affable and approachable. The new guy appears genuinely easy to chat with, working the room like a natural.

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Of course, he is still the new guy. We'll see if things change once the bloggers, radio hosts, state board of higher education members and University of North Dakota apologists get their claws into him. Cook's predecessor, Dean Bresciani, couldn't jaywalk on an empty street on a Sunday morning without the jackals tearing him apart during the last few years of his tenure.

"You know, everything has been extremely positive," Cook said prior to the event.

The Wahpeton stop — Cook stopped for a photo opportunity with the 40-foot catfish statue near the Red River — was part of NDSU's statewide road tour, meant to introduce the new president to the state while tossing in a hefty dash of promotion for Bison athletics.

"I guess we have a national championship football trophy along with us or something," Cook said, exhibiting an ability to deadpan.

Again, people, a wisecrack. He knows all about NDSU football and the other sports and — like all presidents at universities that have athletic success — referred to athletics as the "front porch" of the institution that he believes can help build enrollment. That's a good sign for those nervous about losing Bresciani's boosterism.

"When you have a brand, athletics is a big part of that," Cook said.

And to head off the next question you're already asking in your heads, no, I didn't prod Cook for his views on NDSU moving from the Football Championship Subdivision to the higher Football Bowl Subdivision. That, and the follow-up questions, are better left for a lengthy interview that can hopefully be scheduled in the near future.

Cook and his entourage have been busy making their way around North Dakota, meeting-and-greeting while allowing the new president to learn about NDSU's mission and reach. There've been stops in Streeter, Bismarck, Dickinson, Watford City, Williston, the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and Wahpeton. There are stops yet to come in Casselton, Langdon, Carrington, Minot, Towner and Grand Forks.

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"I have a deeper understanding and appreciation for things that kind of hit me the first time around. Really understanding what the Research Extension Centers are and what they mean to the state, understanding what the research is doing for agriculture, understanding and seeing all the kinds of stakeholders who go to these events and how much they appreciate the work we're doing," Cook said. "I kind of knew that, but you have to get out there and kind of feel and touch and have conversations with people. And that's where you really get that rich, deep understanding of what a land-grant institution means to the state."

Cook was hired by the board of higher ed in February and took office in May. He said Monday the priorities he noted during the hiring process and shortly after taking office — enrollment and research status to name two — haven't changed after meeting people in Fargo and around the state.

"I think the big-bucket items or the big ideas are relatively the same," he said. "Being an R1 (research classification), which we've talked about, that just sort of puts you in an elite class of research institution. That's important to us for a lot of reasons. That's going to continue to be a priority to me, maybe in ways that people haven't heard about before.

"Enrollment is going to be critical for everybody. I feel like we have to address these enrollment challenges, which then allows us to be set up from a business and financial perspective to do other things. Those are going to be the big, important topics out of the chute."

Cook said he and his wife, Katie, have felt warmly welcomed to Fargo. And not necessarily because he's the new NDSU president.

"Even people who don't, you know, know who I am, when you bump into them in Fargo or other places and they hear you're new in town ... they want to hear about you and get to know you," Cook said. "And I rarely tell them who I am. They're just excited to welcome new people. It's very unique."

Chances are, the president has learned, they're not shy about offering advice.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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