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MCFEELY: Bresciani stays, no thanks to Fargo's Morton

FARGO -- Dean Bresciani kept the wolves at bay for another year when his contract as North Dakota State's president was extended Wednesday, Nov. 16, through June 2018. The State Board of Higher Education really didn't have a choice in the matter,...

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NDSU President Dean Bresciani announces a $4.5 million endowment during a 1 Million Cups talk at the Stage at Island Park on June 8. Matt Hellman / The Forum

FARGO - Dean Bresciani kept the wolves at bay for another year when his contract as North Dakota State's president was extended Wednesday, Nov. 16, through June 2018. The State Board of Higher Education really didn't have a choice in the matter, given the amount of support Bresciani garnered from students, faculty, Fargo's business community and other key stakeholders.

It seemed the campaign against Bresciani ran out of steam the past few months. We hadn't heard much, particularly since an independent investigation into the big media restrictions kerfuffle over the summer showed that Bresciani wasn't in on the ground floor. There was no smoking gun and the board acted appropriately by retaining him.

In the end, this might be nothing more than a stay of execution. It's difficult to see Bresciani being at NDSU long term, simply because it's obvious there are powerful forces that want him gone. The leash is a short one. But it's a leash and a sigh of relief could be heard coming from north Fargo.

The vote wasn't unanimous, however, and that is interesting. The vote to extend Bresciani's contract was 7-1, with the lone dissent coming from Don Morton.

Yes, that Don Morton. The one who lives in Fargo and recently retired from Microsoft. The Michigan native one who came to North Dakota in 1977 to be an assistant football coach at NDSU. The one who dropped deep roots in Fargo and at NDSU by being the Bison's head coach from 1979-84, winning an NCAA Division II national championship in 1983.

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The same Don Morton who ended up with some wonderful jobs in Fargo after getting fired as the head coach at Wisconsin, first by getting hired as executive director for NDSU's Team Makers fundraising club and then by being given a job in the president's office in 1998. He butted heads with Joe Chapman and left for Microsoft in 1999.

You might say the connections and friendships Don Morton made as a football coach at NDSU served him nicely later in his life.

And, yet, throughout the entire Bresciani saga Morton's name kept surfacing as somebody who was no fan of the NDSU president and, indeed, was hostile toward him.

Let's be clear: Morton is not beholden to NDSU or its president because he used to work there. It's like a relationship with any former employer - things change, people change, times change. Morton doesn't owe NDSU anything, necessarily.

Nor was it necessary for everybody on the higher ed board to want to retain Bresciani. This isn't middle school where everybody's feelings must be warm and fuzzy.

But it does seem odd that a former football coach who used to raise money for the athletic department would go so much against the grain of so many at his school and so many high-rolling business people around town - especially when Bresciani is such an obviously strong supporter of the Bison football program.

What's more odd is that Morton isn't willing to articulate whatever issue he has with Bresciani, at least publicly. After board members came out of a three-hour executive session in which they discussed the NDSU president's contract, a couple of members urged the board to renew it. Just before board chairwoman Kathleen Neset was set to take roll call, Morton interjected.

"There was no internal lobbying (in the executive session)," Morton said. "That always hasn't been the case within the state board. It's up to each person to be true to themselves and vote the way they see it. Nobody had any undue pressure on them from anyone on the board."

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Morton was then the only member to vote against Bresciani's renewal.

When asked for a comment afterward by Forum News Service's Mike Nowatzki, Morton declined. Morton did not respond to a message I left on his cellphone.

Morton owes the public, and Bresciani, an explanation. Not because he doesn't want Bresciani at NDSU - again, it's OK to believe the school needs a change - but because Morton's feelings might bring clarity to the situation. He could add information to the discussion.

If the rest of the board believes Bresciani made adequate progress to keep his job, then why doesn't Morton feel that way? Is there another aspect of Bresciani's job performance with which he takes issue? Does he have another axe to grind? Is it personal? Is it business-related? Does Morton not like Bresciani's ties? What is it?

Morton, appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate to sit on a public body overseeing the state's higher education system, should be able to articulate why he doesn't want Bresciani to be president of one of the state's research universities.

He owes the public that for accountability's sake.

He owes Bresciani that for courtesy's sake, even if courtesy hasn't been at the forefront of how the board has handled this situation.

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