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Omdahl: Higher Ed as Harmonious as Middle East

By Staff | Nov 20, 2015

Trouble is still brewing in North Dakota higher education despite our hope for a new start with a new chancellor.

The appointment of Former Governor Ed Shafer as the interim president of the University did not sit well with a significant portion of the University faculty, according to the faculty representative on the Board of Higher Education.

Although other states have chosen presidents from outside of academia, North Dakotan institutions have almost always had presidents with a briefcase full of academic credentials, especially earned doctorates. This long-standing tradition has now been broken with the appointment of a former governor from the business community.

We recollect that the UND faculty also objected to the appointment of President Thomas Clifford as president. In fact, he was not even on the final list of three but the Board appointed him anyway. He turned out to be one of the best presidents UND ever had.

In regard to Schafer, the appointment is only for the interim so his job will be to prepare the way for his permanent replacement. (A John the Baptist of sorts.)

The first major challenge facing Schafer will be the University’s $5 million budget deficit. He can handle this. As governor, Schafer has had to deal with budget crunches during his eight years as state budget maker in the Capitol.

He understands better than most doctorates the give and take of budget resolution and the difficulties in negotiating conflicts involved in reducing everyone’s expectations until the budget is back in balance.

As interim president, Schafer will be forced to focus on the specific problems that must be solved during his short tenure. He will put off long range planning because any new initiatives would require years to implement in the institutional environment.

During my time as interim director of the UND School of Communication, my job boiled down to keeping this dysfunctional school together until a permanent director could make permanent decisions. On my plate were the short term crises. I was in the swamp with the alligators.

But there is a greater problem for higher education brewing over the authority of the chancellor.

Before Chancellor Mark Hagerott was on the scene, NDSU President Dean Bresciani and UND President Robert Kelley voiced their concern that a strong chancellor would limit their access to the Board. The truth is that they didn’t want to answer to a chancellor.

That idea did not die with the appointment of Chancellor Hagerott. The push for independence cropped up last month when NDSU President Bresciani announced that his goal for NDSU was an enrollment of 18,000 students.

This declaration was challenged by Hagerott who favored increased enrollment in the University system but not all in Fargo.

Rather than standing corrected, Bresciani took to the newspapers to explain that he wanted really wanted – all 18,000 at NDSU.

To prove that he was a team player, Bresciani could have let the Chancellor have the last public word and discussed their differences off-camera. Instead, he chose to push back in the newspapers. Apparently, he doesn’t want to be a team player.

While this difference of opinion may not appear significant, the authority of the Chancellor has been put in question. This defiant independence should be nipped in the bud or it will escalate until we again see the spectacle of university presidents forcing chancellors to quit.

If the authority of Chancellor Hagerott is going to be preserved, he and the Board will have to assert some leadership by telling Bresciani and every other college president – to get with the concept of a university system or get lost.

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