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ND higher ed audit panel to hire independent investigator to review Bresciani media rules controversy

North Dakota State University president Dean Bresciani testified against SB 2330 in front of the Government and Veterans Affairs Committe on Thursday morning in Bismarck. Bresciani told committee members it is a students responsibility to know the rules before going to vote. TOM STROMME/Bismarck Tribune (Must credit Bismarck Tribune)

BISMARCK — A state Board of Higher Education committee voted unanimously Friday to retain an independent third party to investigate whether North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani's handling of media guidelines for athletics coverage violated any board policies.

Board President Kathleen Neset of Tioga, who chairs the three-member Audit Committee, said the review is "in everyone's best interest."

"We want to ensure that board policy has been followed, and Dr. Bresciani has expressed personally to me and in a public statement that he welcomes an objective investigation into this matter," Neset said in a meeting that lasted less than nine minutes.

An NDSU spokeswoman said Bresciani's schedule was "completely booked" Friday and he wouldn't be available for an interview. The university provided an email sent by Bresciani to campus employees Tuesday in which he wrote, "I fully welcome an objective investigation into this matter, and thank Chair Neset for the opportunity.

"While it has played out in media as a tumultuous issue, an objective review of the facts will effectively conclude this matter," he wrote.

Committee member Greg Stemen of Valley City commended Neset and Bresciani for welcoming the review.

"It's become a nationwide story, plain and simple," Stemen said.

The committee authorized University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott and the system office to engage a third-party investigator. Stemen said the person should be "extremely" independent, adding he doesn't want to have to worry about where the person graduated or "who they might cheer for on some Saturday in September."

The search will begin immediately, system spokeswoman Linda Donlin said. She didn't know how much it will cost or how long the review will take.

Committee member Kevin Melicher of Fargo, who made the motion to conduct the review, said it should be separate from an ongoing performance evaluation of Bresciani that the board is expected to act on in November. The board in June delayed taking action on Bresciani's contract until this fall, asking him to improve his performance in certain areas, including communication.

"In my opinion, the matters are separated, and this issue is this issue," Melicher said.

Hagerott declined to comment after the meeting.

The media guidelines were announced July 29 and rescinded by Bresciani on Aug. 2. They would have restricted the access of news outlets that did not have contracts with NDSU to broadcast football and basketball games. KVLY-TV won the football contract, Midco Sports Network won the basketball contract and Radio FM Media won the radio contract for both sports. Forum Communications Co. took part in the bidding but did not win a contract.

Text messages between Bresciani and athletic department officials regarding the guidelines were first reported on last week by Forum Communications Co. blogger and columnist Rob Port, who obtained them through a public records request.

The text messages showed that Bresciani at first supported efforts to defend the media rules and mocked those critical of them, striking a tone that seemed inconsistent with his Aug. 2 public statement that he was "profoundly disappointed when I learned the facts about this issue."

In his email Tuesday, Bresciani attempted to clarify what he meant in that statement.

"It appears that this comment has been interpreted to mean that I was disappointed in the new guidelines, when in fact, I was disappointed in the process," he wrote. "Because of this interpretation, some people believe that my initial support of the guidelines over the weekend cannot be reconciled with this statement. I can understand how some misunderstood my meaning. The simple truth remains that I was disappointed in the process."

Bresciani reiterated that the guidelines were released without his knowledge and that he hadn't been consulted about them in advance.

Neset, in a written statement issued Monday, said the way Bresciani handled the controversy was similar to previous communication issues cited by the board in delaying his contract extension. Bresciani, in an email to all NDSU employees Monday, acknowledged he sent texts about the new media rules that were "not appropriate."

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead contributed to this report.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.