Schafer says job is to prepare the way for next UND president

FARGO--Ed Schafer had barely made it inside Fargo's James Carlson Library on Thursday when someone recognized him. After the two shook hands, the 69-year-old former North Dakota governor said exchanges like that happen all the time.

Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer talks Thursday in Fargo about his interim appointment as president of the University of North Dakota in January. (Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service)

FARGO--Ed Schafer had barely made it inside Fargo's James Carlson Library on Thursday when someone recognized him. After the two shook hands, the 69-year-old former North Dakota governor said exchanges like that happen all the time.

"It's great but it does take longer to do my grocery shopping," he said, laughing.

Last week, the State Board of Higher Education unanimously appointed Schafer to serve as the University of North Dakota's interim president once Robert Kelley retires in January after seven years at the helm of one of the state's two research universities.

Schafer will oversee about 14,000 students and 2,700 employees and take the office of the president at a time when the school has a $5 million budget shortfall, a new nickname and logo to develop and unrest among faculty.

Schafer said he sees himself as being an interactive president, one who will be in the trenches with both students and instructors to root out problems and clean the slate for the new president, who could take office as early as July.


"Leadership isn't sitting in your office," Schafer said. "Leadership is engaging and it's contribution. I'm going to be in a classroom at UND. I'm going to be in the student union and I'm going to work out in the Wellness Center. That's just who I am."

Growing up

Schafer was born into a house in Bismarck with three older sisters, one younger sister and one bathroom.

"We had a makeshift room downstairs with a hose running up in the corner for a shower," he said.

But when Schafer was about 6 years old, his father's company took off and the family suddenly found themselves living in grandeur.

"So when I started grade school, I was the talk of the town," he said.

It was during this time Schafer began to realize that because he and his family were prominent figures in town, people made assumptions about him. He learned to address his critics head on, something that was invaluable when he eventually went into politics.
"I was fortunate enough to learn I could interact with people and I had to get them to know me, because they already thought they knew me," he said.


Even though he started working for his father's company, the Gold Seal Co., as a teenager, Schafer went to college specifically because he didn't want to work there. He said that when he first went to UND in 1964, he was a self-described rebel and prankster who had "been to every party."

One year, he stole a decorated Christmas tree out of an administration building and took it to the dorms. He didn't understand why administrators would decorate their own buildings but not student areas, and while he did get in some trouble for the prank, it was then that he learned he had to be tactful in order to create meaningful change.

"You have to build credibility and character, not trash the place," he said, laughing.
After dropping out for a semester and then attending college in Bismarck the following spring, Schafer finally returned to UND and earned a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1969.

"My education was solid, and I appreciate that, even though I didn't know it at the time," he said.

Schafer then went to the University of Arizona but didn't like the experience and went on to earn a master's degree in business administration from the University of Denver in 1970.

That's when a family member intervened, telling Schafer he needed to settle down with a company. Despite still not wanting to work for his father, he took a job as a midnight shift quality control inspector at Gold Seal's Mr. Bubble factory in New Jersey.

"Right away, I knew it was home," he said.

Over the course of 15 years, Schafer moved throughout the company doing a variety of jobs from marketing to purchasing until finally serving as president from 1978 to 1985.


Schafer smiled and shook his head, reflecting on a legacy of either doing things he said he wouldn't or others told him he shouldn't.

Prior to his appointment as UND's interim presidency, he twice said he was not interested before reconsidering thanks to urging from his wife, Nancy.

"It just started to make some sense and the more I thought about it, I said, 'I think I can go up there for a short period of time and mostly prepare the path for the new president,' " he said.

Growth and change

Schafer's professional rise is familiar to most North Dakotans. After an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1990 and without much of a public profile, he ran for governor in North Dakota and defeated Attorney General Nicholas Spaeth in 1992. He served two terms, and after a short break from politics, during which he competed on the TV show "Junkyard Wars" and co-founded a wireless company, he was appointed U.S. secretary of agriculture at the end of the Bush administration.

He still remembers the first time George W. Bush called him directly.

"He was on Marine One and there was an ag issue some place he had seen and wanted to ask me about it. And I was like, the president of the United States is asking me?" Schafer said, smiling. "It was an unbelievable experience."

Something not as well publicized is the credit he gives to the support of his wife.

Schafer had been divorced for two decades and dated on and off during that time, creating a list of traits he wanted in an ideal mate.

But when he met Nancy Jones in a coat check line at a symphony ball before Schafer had been elected governor, he said he knew she was the one despite finding out she didn't fit his list at all.

"She very much taught me how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ," he said. "She brought me out of the doldrums into the light."

Schafer said Nancy was integral in the success of his time as governor. She was the first first lady to have an office in the capitol and was hands-on with women's health issues, children's issues and a tobacco-free initiative.

"I think she's going to have a strong impact, especially on a campus where there are morale issues and mistrust of the administration," Schafer said. "She'll be a huge healing hand up there."

Healing is what some say UND needs.

At September forums to gather feedback about what they want in a leader, UND employees said they want a "walk-around" president who communicates, understands the culture and listens.

Schafer said he wants to get to know campus, including the students who went so far as to try to pass a vote of no-confidence for Kelley and some administrators over what they saw as a lack of transparency with tuition model development.

"I don't know what the students' gripes are," he said. "I can tell you what I think they are. I can talk all day about transparency and listening issues and things like that, but until you get there and interact and say, 'I was there, I stole the Christmas tree,' you don't know. I understand, and I'm excited about that stuff."

The nickname

Schafer also wants to use his existing friendships to mend UND's relationship with American Indian tribes in the state.

UND retired its Fighting Sioux name and logo in 2012 after the NCAA threatened sanctions, but Schafer said it was an issue when he was on campus during the time of the cartoon-ish Sammy Sioux mascot.

In 2011, Schafer said he thought it was hypocritical for the NCAA to allow certain schools, such as the Florida State Seminoles, to continue using Native American mascots with settlements.

He initially supported the old nickname, but Schafer said his opinion changed as the debate over whether is was offensive or respectful raged for decades and some students faced discrimination.

"It's awful," he said about the pain caused by discrimination. "But on the other hand, do you translate that into everything you're doing is wrong? When we got into this tug-o-war over discrimination, everything became bad, and my biggest concern was not wanting to break the relationship with the tribes."

In 1990, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribal member Lydia Sage-Chase met and subsequently inducted Schafer and his wife into the tribe. While serving as governor, he elevated the Indian Affairs Commissioner to a full cabinet position as well.

"I'll have a big war bonnet in my office that I was blessed to receive when I was adopted into the tribe," Schafer said.

A third and final vote between Fighting Hawks and Roughriders is underway with results expected early this week, but Schafer said he isn't sure exactly what all he'll be doing once he takes office in regard to the new nickname, only that he wants to be involved.

"I'm going to be interactive," he said.

The politics

Once Schafer's appointment as interim president was announced, lawmakers from Grand Forks on both sides of the aisle said they were happy with his selection, including Republicans Rep. Mark Sanford and Sen. Ray Holmberg and Democrats Sen. Connie Triplett and Rep. Corey Mock.

The Legislature's relationship with higher education has been rocky at times, and lawmakers attempted to change its governing board with a 2014 ballot measure.

The measure failed, but Schafer said he thinks the problem started with poor implementation of a statewide university system rather than "the old days" of each school individually asking for funding from the Legislature.

But Schafer said his role at UND is to lead the school, not fix the entire system.

Schafer, a Republican, faced what he considers partisan problems while in office. According to archives, he was investigated but not charged after the Democratic-NPL Party filed a complaint that Schafer had used his press secretary and state equipment to write an opinion piece.

Schafer said a Democratic blogger also accused him of plagiarism, something he said he never intentionally did and actually spoke of to a class to turn it into a learning opportunity.

More recently, Schafer responded directly to comments made about him on a popular North Dakota political blog.

"I'm a people person and part of that is understanding you don't have to agree with someone and they don't have to agree with you to have a conversation," he said. "People are much more accepting of decisions if they feel they have input."

This way of thinking is what some at UND have complained is missing on campus.

State Board of Higher Education faculty adviser Eric Murphy told the board prior to voting that faculty were concerned about Schafer's lack of experience in higher education and lack of a terminal degree.

"It's a legitimate issue," Schafer responded. "They don't know me and they don't know if I care about them or their jobs, but I've been in class and I've graded students' papers. ... I hope they come to know me as a part of the administration and community that they're working for and care for."

At NDSU, Schafer teaches an agriculture economics leadership class and said he plans to continue that in the spring semester, turning it into a distance course available online to both UND and NDSU students.

When asked about his thoughts on open records laws in the state, which leave many things open to the media and public, Schafer said he thinks it's a positive thing that people are "neighborly" and want to be involved.

And when Schafer is open, he really opens up.

"I'm windy," he said jokingly. "I don't do 30-second sound bites."

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