North Dakota State’s leader fights through a coughing fit in his spacious Old Main office.
President Dean Bresciani has been battling more than an irritated throat as of late. The 2014-15 school year brought with it challenges, ranging from student safety to infrastructure failures.
But Bresciani stays unwaveringly optimistic about NDSU. The university is reaching unprecedented heights, he said.
“It’s almost like everything we touch is turning into gold,” he says of the university’s continuing successes.
Bresciani, between coughs, reflected on the university’s biggest happenings and his future at NDSU.
In 125 years, NDSU has never had so many students.
The university’s fall enrollment count tallied 14,747 undergraduate, graduate and professional students.
Bresciani said he wants to see an additional 3,000 call NDSU home.
“We think we can get up to 18,000,” he said.
This will be done, Bresciani said, by attracting more graduate students and retaining more undergraduates. The latter goal, in particular, troubles him.
“Way too many drop out,” he said.
Increasing enrollment is a balancing act, Bresciani continued.
“We think housing-wise, faculty-wise, space-wise that 18 (thousand) is the tipping point,” he said. “And we also want to be very careful about not losing the climate of NDSU that makes it so special.
“We don’t want to grow to a size that at some point that we start shrinking.”
Thomas Bearson disappeared Sept. 20 blocks from campus. The freshman’s body was found three days later in Moorhead, Minn.
The crime, ruled a homicide, remains unsolved.
While a rare occurrence at NDSU, Bresciani has experienced student deaths before.
“I’ve worked at nine universities; there’s never been one that we didn’t lose a number of students, some in tragic and gruesome ways,” he said. “His was tragic in its own right, certainly. But it’s part of working with a college-age population that these sorts of things are going to happen.”
Ray Boyer, director of police, wrote in a September listserv this crime was the first of its kind at NDSU.
“His was an exception to the rule, here, and that’s one of the advantages of being at NDSU,” Bresciani said. “But it doesn’t mean we are a perfectly safe, nothing-can-happen environment, either.”
Since the disappearance occurred off campus, Bresciani said NDSU was limited in how it could respond.
“I think what we will be doing – are doing – is more proactive education of students to be careful and be wary of their environments – particularly if they’re off campus,” he said. “If there’s something to be gained by his tragedy, it would be using it to get students’ attention.”
In his State of the University address, Bresciani called upon the upcoming state legislative session to fund NDSU’s “embarrassingly rundown” facilities.
“Tragically,” Bresciani said, legislators took little action.
He called upon the closure of Ladd and Dunbar Halls last week as primary examples of the buildings’ condition.
Both were closed for separate incidents.
“These are two critically important buildings both for instruction and for research and for the economy of the state of North Dakota, and they received absolutely – almost – no attention from the legislature,” Bresciani said. “ … I struggle with how the state can continue to let its leading research university’s facilities increasingly be deplorable.”
He also took issue with legislators not addressing the university’s accreditation warnings.
“Those didn’t even make the conversations,” Bresciani said.
Funding took a hit when oil prices free fell late in 2014. Legislators enacted a trigger mechanism that will fund capital projects if prices rebound to a certain price, but Bresciani remains wary.
“I hope that happens before a tragedy makes us wish it we had done it faster,” he said.
North Dakota residents handedly voted down a measure that, if passed, would have done away with the State Board of Higher Education.
Three-fourths of voters voted against Measure 3, but Bresciani said some in the legislature still are wishing the SBHE away.
“There seems to be a detachment of our legislature from what everybody else seems to know,” he said. “ … They still believe that there’s something wrong. They can’t identify what it is, but some of them are insistent that something needs to be fixed.
“And that’s interesting to say the least and ironic at the same time.”
The SBHE has seen its share of criticism.
Public records violations stirred controversy last summer, and turnover continued throughout the winter when Kristen Diederich, the SBHE president, resigned, rumored because of tensions between the North Dakota University System and legislature.
As the Bison football team rolled to its fourth consecutive national championship, NDSU officials again moved winter commencement from the Fargodome to Festival Concert Hall.
A small handful of students and staff protested this venue change, questioning where NDSU placed academics among athletics.
Bresciani said the comparison is not up for debate.
“Academics are absolutely the priority. There’s no question of that. This isn’t that we had a choice between one or the other,” he said, noting football’s contractual obligation with the Fargodome.
FCH, Bresciani continued, perhaps was “the better venue” when it was all said and done.
“In retrospect, most people, by an overwhelming margin, said it was a better venue to have graduation in,” he said. “There’s not a lot to be said about a graduation in a gym.”
Bresciani said the commencements, divvied into smaller ceremonies, went swimmingly.
“Most people said it was a much better environment and the best graduation they’ve ever been to,” he said.
As for the future, commencements will be held in the Sanford Health Athletic Complex once the facility is completed, Bresciani said.
A sexual assault of three NDSU international students occurred during winter break, just blocks from campus.
Allegedly, the attacker Stanley Busche raped two of the students before fleeing. After turning himself in, Busche plans to plead guilty.
Bresciani said the incident, like Bearson’s, happened off campus, so the university is relegated to “a back-up role” in the investigation.
“There are limits, of course, because it’s off campus and outside of our jurisdiction,” he said.
NDSU came under scrutiny for not notifying students of the attack. Bresciani said collaboration with the Fargo Police Department will continue to be enhanced in the future, but NDSU cannot meddle too much with off-campus incidents.
“I think it’d be a dangerous precedent for us to start announcing things that are happening in the city on our system,” he said. “That could get overwhelming. You could start getting five warnings a day, sort of thing.”
As 2014 ended, so did the short reign of Doug Mayo as president and CEO of the NDSU Development Foundation.
His 20-month tenure was marked with staff resignations, including the Alumni Association’s leader, Sherri Schmidt.
Bresciani said he will remember Mayo and his triumphs.
“Mr. Mayo was actually, from the university’s perspective, phenomenally successful,” he said. “Annual fundraising doubled, a bunch of new staff were brought in and are doing a fantastic job; their skill levels exceed those they replaced.”
The issue, Bresciani said, sat with temperaments clashing.
“There was a personality conflict, I think, with some in that association,’” he said, “and I’d stress ‘some.'”
The Development Foundation and Alumni Association, Bresciani continued, need to “mature and grow” to fulfill their main reason of existence: to support NDSU.
Fundraising, although at record levels, needs increasing, Bresciani said.
“Frankly, we’re behind our peers that are top research universities,” he said.
Four months after North Dakota became a state, the state legislature established North Dakota Agricultural College on March 8, 1890.
“If you think about the beginnings, NDSU’s were exceptionally modest,” Bresciani, the university’s 14th president, said.
For this year’s 125th birthday, NDSU celebrated quietly, with two sheet cakes and refreshments served in the basement of the main library.
Bresciani said he was critical of the celebration, or lack thereof.
“I think we should be celebrating every year,” he said. “ … I’d be the first and loudest critic of that, and I think you’re going to be seeing some changes in the future.”
Bresciani initially questioned whether the program would be successful on campus.
“I am probably the poster child for changed perceptions,” he said. “Boy, when I’m wrong, I’m really wrong.”
NDSU student government touts the launch has been the largest of its kind in the nation. Student government, in partnership with Great Rides Bike Share, said more than 35,000 students have checked a bike out since its launch.
As the launch neared, Bresciani said he pushed for further resources, like ensuring the bikes were painted Bison green.
NDUS’ proposed tuition model has been shelved amid new legislation and student push-back.
The controversy stayed away from NDSU, Bresciani said, because the plan lined up well with the university’s existing model.
“Most aspects of the Pathways plan are things that NDSU already has or was going to implement,” he said.
The changes include raising acceptance standards, pushing students to take full-credit loads and making classwork transferable between NDUS institutions.
“For our students, the consequences of that plan are inconsequential,” Bresciani said.
For students at other schools, Pathways could cause significant changes.
Members of the University of North Dakota’s student government pushed to oust administration because of the model’s proposals. Lack of communication between students and administration played a role the student government’s statement of no confidence, which demanded for President Robert Kelley and other vice presidents to resign.
Students and administration came to an agreement, and the resolution was tabled.
“Our students are much more engaged with leadership of the university than students at UND,” Bresciani said. “We work very closely with student government leadership.”
Bresciani said UND and NDSU’s student bodies differ, too; UND has more part-time students and online users.
“There’s more of a chance for miscommunication in an environment like that versus ours,” Bresciani said.
A former NDUS officer claimed she was fired on false pretenses, stemming back to the 2013 email scandal involving Bresciani.
Kirsten Franzen alleged in her notice of claim “false accusations” directed toward her occurred because of actions she suggested NDUS enact while investigating Bresciani and the 40,000 missing emails.
Bresciani dismissed the allegation.
“That was silly back when it happened, and what’s interesting, is she’s suing everybody except for me,” he said. “ … That was a ludicrous situation, and this is a private person taking private action; really NDSU has nothing to do with it.”
NDSU became entrenched in a debate of sexual politics on campus as classes wrapped up this spring.
Theater NDSU put on a risqué reboot of the Greek comedy, Lysistrata, but it was the silver screen, not the stage, that caused a stir.
Campus Attractions showed “50 Shades of Grey” last weekend, despite one student organization’s adamant protests.
Bison Catholic started a prayer chain as well as contacted administration and student leaders, trying to stop the “evil” film.
The group’s Facebook page said the film “portrays women as sexual objects and men as sexually obsessive animals.” Critics also opposed using their student fees to show the movie.
Universities “are a marketplace for the exchange of ideas and conversation,” Bresciani said. “The upside even to controversies is that it spurs conversation.”
Bresciani said he was “intrigued” by the entire situation.
“It’s a popular movie that millions of people have seen and has gotten more attention here than in any other place in the nation,” he said.
Bresciani said the university does not have an official opinion on the matter, but personally, students should not expect him to be in the Century Theater for the film’s showing.
“I haven’t seen a popular movie in years,” he said.
Health and sharing the story
Bresciani’s cough subsides as the subject turns to himself.
The president is back to full health after a year that has seen him sporting a cast. Bresciani’s wing was clipped for a while – a lingering arm problem stemming from a bucking horse incident.
He said he is ready for the future and whatever it may bring.
“People ask me, ‘How long are you going to be at NDSU,’ and I think the answer is as long as we are having as much fun as we’re having,” he said.
Bresciani said NDSU ranks as the 84th best research institution in the nation, and the school’s story needs to be shared more by “modest North Dakotans.”
“Ten years ago, I don’t think any North Dakotan could even dream of being that successful,” he said. “ … It’s stunning, in 125 years, to accomplish what has been accomplished.”