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Port: Let's get the university presidents out of sports

The job duties of public university presidents should be focused exclusively on the reason why the public built and funded the universities in the first place, which is academic endeavors. Sports enterprises should be left to other leaders.

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North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani tosses a "Montana State speech" into the crowd during the NDSU pep fest on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, at the Comerica Center in Frisco, Texas.
David Samson/The Forum

MINOT, N.D. — Dean Bresciani, the outgoing president of North Dakota State University, is not good at his job.

That's why he got canned by the State Board of Higher Education. His institution's enrollment numbers and academic metrics stalled during his tenure. He feuded with elected leaders. He clashed with faculty.

The only thing he had going for him was NDSU's wildly successful football program. An impressive string of championships has earned Bresciani praise from Bison fans, and glowing hagiography from sports reporters, with neither constituency caring all that much for the university's academic mission.

Bresciani has clung to his job for years by milking that udder dry. "If it weren't for that string of football championships he'd have been gone a long time ago," one state lawmaker told me in June when news of Bresciani leaving broke.

Under his leadership, NDSU  was an institution that balked at raising a couple of million dollars to rebuild a science building that habitually caught fire and had no running water, but had no problem raising tens of millions of dollars for a new football practice facility.

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Bison fans get down to the Emerald City band during the NDSU pep fest on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, at the Comerica Center in Frisco, Texas.
David Samson/The Forum

It should shame us all to acknowledge it, but, as a practical matter of politics, those sort of backward priorities from campus leadership work in our sports-obsessed society.

Bresciani's leadership is moot at this point. He's leaving, and there is no convincing the Bison football cult, still awash in the glow of yet another championship, that it's for the best.

The question before us is, can we do better going forward?

We're going to be getting a list of potential replacements for Bresciani soon , and while those candidates will be interesting, we ought to think long and hard about the job description of the presidents of our institutions of higher education.

We ought to take the sports programs away from them.

Whoever we hire to lead our institutions should spend exactly zero percent of their time making policy around football or hockey or any of the other sports our campuses play hosts to.

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If I had my way, we'd drive sports off campus entirely. Even high-profile programs like NDSU's football team are a drain on the resources of the campus. They inflate what it costs a student to attend. They distract from the core academic missions of the institutions. They're not the marketing boon sports fans make them out to be either.

Enrollment has declined during NDSU's run of football championships (who wants students who pick a campus based on the football team anyway?), and most of the donations sports programs drive tend to be aimed at enlarging the sports program and not facilitating education or research.

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But I recognize this is an unpopular opinion. You don't have to write me a nasty email to explain that. Americans are obsessed with collegiate sports. That's not going to change.

Maybe we could change the way we manage them, though.

Maybe, we could find a compromise that gives our campuses leaders who spend all of their time focused on academics and research and not one minute on sports.

I'm open to ideas as for how this would work. Should we have the athletic directors on each campus report directly to the State Board of Higher Education? Should they report to a new board that only handles the state's collegiate sports programs?

We can debate it, but moving in this direction would be doing ourselves a favor. More important, we'd be doing our students and our academic faculty a favor too.

Football is fun.

Hockey, basketball, baseball, and all the other games the students play are fun too. On campus, they've become big business. Since, again, that's not changing, we need to figure out how to manage those businesses without distracting the campus presidents from their jobs as educators.

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