GRAND FORKS -- Ed Schafer may not be the perfect candidate for the interim presidency of the university, but he is certainly the best candidate that could be found.

Best by pedigree.

Best by accomplishment.

Best by temperament.

But best most of all because of the important message that his appointment sends.

No other appointment could have said so forcefully and clearly that the university is of urgent importance to North Dakota.

Even more important, Schafer is the only person whose appointment could have delivered that message to the enemies of higher education: activists, bloggers and legislators on the right who have been gnawing at the university’s reputation, effectiveness and relevance, vilifying its leaders and plotting its contraction.

So Schafer’s appointment extends the truce in the war against higher education that Rich Wardner, leader of the state Senate, announced six weeks ago.

That’s welcome news.

At the same time, Schafer is completely free of the kind of baggage that probably doomed Tom DiLorenzo’s ambitions. The current provost, DiLorenzo was the only other candidate forwarded to the board by Chancellor Mark Hagerott.

But DiLorenzo was unacceptable to a large share of the faculty. He also was among administrators whose resignations students demanded late in the last academic year.

DiLorenzo came to UND at least in part to create a new financial model for the university; this brought him nothing but trouble, of course, since the old model aggrandized the status quo.

But whatever the merits of his ideas, his operating methods set him at odds with many in the university community.

Of course, this is one of the reasons that Schafer is not the perfect candidate. He has no experience in university finance, other than approving and forwarding budgets for the state colleges and universities while he was governor.

He does, however, have a passion for the university. He’s a regular at its alumni events, including Homecoming. Nobody doubts that he bleeds UND green.

But he lives in Fargo, and that’s another reason that he isn’t the perfect candidate. He’s become closely identified with Fargo business interests - the same that promote the interests of North Dakota State University - and so, there’s a tiny bit of anxiety about his loyalty.

He teaches a course in ag economics at NDSU - a course not suited to UND’s own curriculum. Nevertheless, he says he will offer it on both campuses.

He’s not perfect because he’s closely identified with conservative politics, and that includes criticism of legislative policy agreed upon by Republican legislators and the Republican administration. As recently as last week, Schafer gave a talk to Fargo Republicans in which he criticized the level of spending by the last session - too high, he said. Earlier, he was involved in an effort to lower taxes on oil production.

Schafer’s explicit Christianity might also be off-putting on a campus that values inclusiveness and diversity. He mentioned his faith in an interview with the Herald’s Anna Burleson after his appointment was announced last week .

He’ll need to remember that UND is a diverse place, with many races and many religions represented there.

Schafer’s declaration of faith can be seen in a different way, of course. It’s an explicit expression of freedom of speech. Schafer must have known it would raise eyebrows, but he said it anyway.

Perhaps this kind of attitude will help dispel the anxiety that pervades campus about free speech issues.

Schafer’s personal history suggests that he may be more broad-minded than many of today’s campus activists. His eldest daughter is both gay and a liberal. She works for the Obama White House. He had generally good relations with American Indian tribes while he was governor, and he elevated the Indian Affairs Commission in the state government hierarchy.

In Burleson’s interview, he joked about his antics on campus during the late 1960s; and in another context, he said that he wanted to be a student’s kind of guy.

Although he has personal wealth, he’s had experience with reversal. Two of his business ventures- a fish farm and a wireless company - didn’t do especially well. His first marriage didn’t work out. He bummed around some. His wife, Nancy, brought him “out of the doldrums and into the light,” he told Burleson.

He’s a well-rounded character, in other words. Whatever the imperfections, they hardly detract from the package.

Schafer’s personal pedigree is pure North Dakotan. He’s the son of Harold Schafer, who founded the Gold Seal Co., made a fortune and used it to resurrect the old cow town of Medora as North Dakota’s premier tourist destination.

Schafer himself served as president of the company, governor of the state and U.S. secretary of agriculture. He also served as a director of Continental Petroleum Co., a major player in the Bakken oil shale boom. He apparently got the job as a reward for his work to lower oil production taxes; he apparently lost it when he signed a letter endorsing Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s “special places” initiative, an effort to identify areas where oil production might not be allowed.

In sum, Schafer is a true Dakotan - an advantage at this time in the history of the university and the state. He has a record of solid achievement. His innate conservatism is tempered by particular life experiences.

The perfect candidate? Perhaps not.

But certainly someone who can lead and inspire a troubled institution, and perhaps guide and build it, until a permanent president is found.

Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, a member of Forum News Service. You can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com.

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