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McFeely: In NDSU search committee, we trust; higher ed board not so much

If university is to escape bumbling board's Bresciani decision unscathed, it's up to committee to make proper choices

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Outgoing North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani.
Dave Wallis / Forum News Service
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FARGO — There are five finalists to replace Dean Bresciani as president of North Dakota State University, three of whom will be forwarded to the State Board of Higher Education. From there, the board will choose the next leader of NDSU.

What could go wrong?

Just about everything, given it's the bumbling board of higher ed we're talking about. Provincial and short-sighted, the board still hasn't given a legitimate reason it dumped Bresciani.

"Check his job evaluation. It's all there," is what the public's been told, as the board and its lapdog chancellor Mark Hagerott have failed to give media interviews since canning Bresciani. They are irredeemable cowards, particularly then-chair Nick Hacker, afraid to answer for their actions.

Bresciani's evaluation famously blamed him for dropping enrollment numbers at NDSU, as well as an "eroding" research standing.

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The first never made sense, given college enrollment everywhere has been plummeting for years. U.S. college enrollment fell by more than 1 million since the beginning of the pandemic alone. The problem was not Bresciani's exclusively.

As for NDSU's research standing, it regained top-tier status a month ago. That excuse evaporated.

Hagerott and friends must be in a hurry to bounce Bresciani out the door before any more good news emerges.

Bresciani's dismissal was never about facts or performance. It was a mix of power play, personal dislike, provincial jealousy and resentfulness. Bresciani was viewed as the uppity president of the attention-grabbing university in Imperial Cass County.

A deadly combination with a board heavy on western North Dakotans and University of North Dakota supporters, with a thin-skinned chancellor aiming to please.

Bresciani was never perfect and deserved criticism for some decisions. That's life. It comes with the job and the salary. He didn't deserve the scorn tossed from points west and north.

Now NDSU students, faculty, staff, alumni and boosters are at the mercy of the same body that saw fit to hire unqualified and near-incompetent Mark Kennedy to be UND's president six years ago.

The good news is the people on the board have since changed. The bad news is this group might be worse.

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It's up to the 13-person presidential search committee made up of mostly NDSU faculty and supporters to steer the board in the right direction by offering choices it can't mess up.

The five finalists are what we could expect them to be. Not as strong as wanted, but only one that's a head-scratcher. An acting chancellor of two tiny campuses in Minnesota? No, thanks.

The search committee is by policy mandated to forward three names to the board for consideration. Even if, say, only one or two are worthy of the job. Then it's up to the board to pick one of the three.

Chances this board would pick the third, unworthy candidate? Approaching 100%. It's time the policy is changed. Only forward candidates to the board who are worthy.

That's a story for another day. The story today is the important job the search committee faces: Save NDSU from the buffoonery of the state board of higher ed.

It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.

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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