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Forum Editorial: The search for NDSU president is needlessly secret; mystery still shrouds Bresciani ouster

The secrecy over the selection of a new North Dakota State University president is so absurd that we can't even know how many applied for the job.

Editorial FSA

Mystery has attended the final leg of Dean Bresciani’s tenure as president of North Dakota State University.

He was informed last year that his presidency would come to an end in 18 months, that he would not be given another contract. No public explanation has been given.

In an evaluation that preceded his non-renewal, Chancellor Mark Hagerott criticized Bresciani for declining enrollment, the university’s “eroding” research position, and his selection of a provost, which drew the most criticism.

Bresciani ignored the 100 applicants who applied in a national search and named Margaret Fitzgerald, who had been serving as interim provost, to permanently fill the position. Fitzgerald had not been a candidate for provost, and the NDSU Faculty Senate voted to censure Bresciani.

Hagerott also criticized Bresciani for allowing the vice president for research position to be filled by interim appointees for three years.

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Ignoring the national search field, Hagerott wrote, placed NDSU at “reputational risk.” Future candidates for top positions at NDSU might decline to apply in light of what happened in the provost search, he said.

That’s all more than a little ironic in light of the secrecy shrouding Bresciani’s termination — and the search for his replacement. More about that in a moment.

We’ve been waiting for something to come dribbling out about the reason for Bresciani’s ouster, but nothing has come out to explain it. Lots of colleges and universities have experienced enrollment declines in recent years.

It was concerning that NDSU lost its top-tier Carnegie research recognition a few years ago, but it was announced recently that NDSU has regained that sought-after status.

Major building projects have been undertaken or completed during Bresciani’s tenure, including a new residence hall, a new building to teach science, technology, engineering and math classes as well as a pharmacy addition to Sudro Hall. Most recently, Sugihara Hall, a new $51 million building to house chemistry and geosciences, opened.

Despite the dings in his review, and the censure vote by faculty, Bresciani has maintained good relations with important constituencies, including students and university backers.

Now, with all of that as background, the search for his successor has been hidden from public view. Last week, a selection committee spent three days interviewing candidates at the InterContinental Hotel at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, deliberately out of sight.

The Forum’s requests to learn even the number of applicants was denied. An exemption to North Dakota’s open records law keeps the names of university presidential applicants secret until finalists are selected.

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The reason for that was supposedly to attract more applicants, who wouldn’t be worried that their job hunting would become public. But has it made a difference — and, if not, does that explain why we can’t even learn how many people are interested in replacing Bresciani?

Honestly, what possible justification can there be for not disclosing the number of applicants for one of North Dakota’s two flagship universities?

Whoever gets that job, by the way, will have a tough act to follow. Bresciani is leaving on a high note. We can’t say the selection of his successor, absurdly shrouded in secrecy, inspires a lot of confidence.

It seems to us that NDSU has unfortunately sustained some “reputational” damage from the cavalier manner Bresciani was fired. Who would want to apply for a job when you can be fired for no clear reason?

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.

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