GRAND FORKS — Dean Bresciani claimed to be surprised last week when the State Board of Higher Education delivered what amounts to a terminal contract. He shouldn’t have been, but it’s no surprise that he wasn’t.
Bresciani has been remarkably tone deaf through the 11 years of his tenure as president of North Dakota State University. He has angered legislators and disappointed the board. He’s faced criticism from the press and from lawmakers, including calls for his resignation. He’s contradicted board action at least twice and he’s fallen short of several important goals, including an audacious plan to increase enrollment by nearly half.
Bresciani isn’t out of a job, even with that record. The board offered him a contract through the end of 2022, or 18 months from now. That’s half of the usual three-year term of a university president’s contracts. There’s an escape clause. He may remain at NDSU as a tenured professor.
There’s a sense of déjà vu here. In 2016, the board gave Bresciani a shorter contract than other university presidents, a clear hint of their dissatisfaction. After an investigation headed by the board chair, members demurred and let Bresciani stay. Bresciani got a break that year when Mark Kennedy arrived on campus as president of the University of North Dakota. Kennedy proved even more arrogant than Bresciani.
Kennedy’s performance at UND gave Bresciani some shade for three years — until Kennedy departed for the University of Colorado system, where he lasted less than three years.
With Kennedy gone, Bresciani’s performance drew increased attention from the board. The Associated Press published a synopsis of Bresciani most recent job evaluation, conducted by Chancellor Mark Hagerott. The evaluation, the AP reported, “criticized Bresciani for losing ground in research, enrollment, recruiting of nontraditional students, and promotion of agriculture and education in western North Dakota.” The report, written by correspondent Dave Kolpack, continued, “Hagerott also questioned Bresciani’s handling of cybersecurity threats and the appointments of a new provost and vice president of research.”
Bresciani challenged much of the review, insisting “I am proud of NDSU’s accomplishments during my presidency. … Those accomplishments go well beyond the success of our football team and touch on every aspect at NDSU.”
NDSU’s president was hostile to the press. He didn’t tell any lies, as far as I know, but he made it extremely difficult to get any information.
My personal example involves coverage of university budgets at the Legislature. During the 2017 session, I sat through budget hearings for all 11 of the state’s public colleges and universities. Every president came prepared with material, which was shared with the press — except one. Bresciani refused to give me a copy of his prepared remarks, saying he’d brought only enough for each of the legislators and the committee clerk. I explained that I’d easily get a copy from any one of the committee members, because the only essential copy was the one that he’d given the clerk. He walked away.
Quite a few legislators have stories of similar snubs. Of course, slighting a newsman is not a dismissible offense, and neither is snubbing a legislator, but neither builds goodwill.
As early as November 2013, Roscoe Streyle, of Minot, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, wrote a letter to the state’s newspapers accusing Bresciani of “deception and dishonesty,” continuing, “I strongly urge the chancellor and Board of Higher Education to remove Bresciani now if he will not pay us the courtesy of resigning on his own.” Streyle offered several examples to back his claims. The most important involved emails that Bresciani refused to turn over to a legislative committee as the state’s open records law requires. The attorney general wasn’t able to determine whether Bresciani had discarded the emails.
This early example reflects the pattern that Bresciani followed. In 2016, NDSU announced a policy that restricted media access to the university’s football and men’s basketball teams, except those paying for the privilege. A furor of criticism arose, and Bresciani disclaimed any knowledge of the policy — until blogger Rob Port demanded access to text messages relating to the policy. Sure enough, Bresciani had blessed it.
The list goes on, well beyond the word limit of this column. There’s the airplane incident, for example, an $8,000 business class ticket to India. There’s his use of a campus police officer as his chauffeur. When the Legislature determined that campus legal work should be centralized in the Board of Higher Education office, Bresciani found a work-around, hiring the NDSU attorney as his chief of staff. He casually used part of a legislative research grant to offset budget shortfalls elsewhere on campus. More recently, he preempted a campus committee searching for a new provost, instead appointing someone who had not applied and didn’t face vetting as other candidates did.
Et cetera and so on.
This litany is far from complete, and it is certainly familiar to Bresciani and others at NDSU, as well as those media personalities who’ve howled about the process. None of them should be surprised.
The surprise is that the board finally acted.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.