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State board enters closed meeting to discuss NDSU president's contract

North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani delivers the State of the University address Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, in Festival Hall on the NDSU campus. Dave Wallis / The Forum

BISMARCK — North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani has made progress in communication and other areas but still has work to do, the chairwoman of the state Board of Higher Education said Wednesday after members voted 7-1 to extend Bresciani's contract for one year.

"President Bresciani has shown improvement in many of the measureable areas, but there is still work to be done, and we have a way forward with that," chairwoman Kathleen Neset told reporters after the board met for more than three hours in closed session to discuss Bresciani's fate.

His contract had been set to expire June 30, 2017, and now will expire June 30, 2018. Board members had delayed his contract extension in June, asking that by November he improve his performance in certain areas, including communication and teamwork.

"I very much appreciate the strong support from the board and look forward to NDSU continuing to serve our citizens," Bresciani told reporters after the vote.

Board member Don Morton of Fargo declined to comment on his reasons for casting the lone dissenting vote.

The board met at 8:30 a.m. and voted unanimously to go into executive session at 8:38 a.m. Members reconvened shortly before noon to cast their votes on a motion to extend the contract.

After the board delayed his contract extension in June, Bresciani soon found himself embroiled in controversy when his handling of media rules for athletics coverage was called into question.

The board's Audit Committee voted in mid-August to hire an independent investigator from Kansas to determine whether Bresciani had violated any board policies. The investigator, Kathy Perkins, found in her report released Oct. 3 that Bresciani didn't lie when he said he didn't know about NDSU's media rules before they were issued. But she also criticized Bresciani, saying his communication and decision-making could have been better.

Bresciani has received resolutions of support from students, faculty and staff, but not the NDSU foundation board. Regardless, foundation members and alumni are strongly in support of Bresciani, said Steve Swiontek, chairman of the executive governing board.

Neset thanked Bresciani's supporters for their input, saying, "We have heard extensively from them." The board's voting student member, NDSU senior Nick Evans, and non-voting faculty adviser, Ernst Pijning, a history professor at Minot State University, both urged approval of the contract extension, given the support from students, faculty and staff, which Bresciani called "very humbling."

"The overwhelming support of the students, the faculty, the staff, alumni, colleagues from around the nation has been absolutely heartfelt by me and overwhelming in some senses," he told reporters.

While Morton didn't comment after the vote, he said beforehand that there "was no internal lobbying."

"No one had any undue pressure on them from anybody on the board," he said.

During the executive session, board members reviewed Bresciani's performance as it related to four tenets: teamwork and collaboration, communication, information technology and research, Neset said.

"Generally speaking, I will say that most of this discussion kept coming back to communication," she said.

Neset said the nearly six-month review process was "very professional" and all board members were able to share their views.

"We have done a thoughtful, exhaustive process that I believe was warranted," she said.

Bresciani wouldn't comment on whether he thought it was warranted.

As for his future, he said, "I love NDSU, I love what we're doing to serve our citizens and look forward to continuing to do so."

Bresciani officially became NDSU's 14th president on June 15, 2010, with a starting salary of $300,000 annually. He signed a two-year contract extension in June 2015 for $354,568 annually plus benefits including annual and sick leave, retirement and state employee health plan coverage.

The one-year extension brings Bresciani's contract in line with those of nine other college or university presidents in the 11-campus University System (University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy just took office July 1). Bresciani's salary will remain unchanged, as no presidents received raises for the coming year.

The closed session was limited to voting board members, nonvoting advisors, Chancellor Mark Hagerott, the chancellor's senior staff and board counsel.

Under state law, the board can enter executive session to discuss the appointment and removal of university presidents. Executive sessions can also be used to discuss salaries, terms of office and determine duties.

Bresciani had the option of requesting the meeting be open to other individuals or the public.

Before the vote, board member Kevin Melicher of Fargo, who had previously indicated he may seek to have the discussion about Bresciani's contract in public, read a statement.

"This process has been very difficult for all concerned ... with the angst of potentially not renewing a presidential contract for one of our nationally recognized research universities," he said, adding, "I have come to realize that working through our executive session together on this will establish better understanding and dialogue as we move forward."

Neset reiterated that there "is still work to be done with Dr. Bresciani" and said the method is already in place.

"It is called clear, concise, measurable goals and then the evaluation process that's done by the chancellor," she said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.

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