Bresciani looks back on 12 years as NDSU president: 'I wish I could do it again'
Dean Bresciani wraps up his presidency at North Dakota State University in Fargo on May 16, nearly a year after his contract was not renewed.
FARGO — If given the chance, North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani says he’d do it all over again “in a heartbeat.”
Bresciani's 12 years as president at the land-grant research university have included major successes and some controversies, among them was the State Board of Higher Education's decision last year to not renew his contract .
Bresciani's final day as president is Monday, May 16, and in the months to follow, he will transition into a tenured professor position at the school.
“It’s coming at me faster than I would have ever imagined. On that day that I hand over the keys, I think it's probably gonna hit me pretty hard,” Bresciani said.
The Forum sat down for an hour-long interview with the outgoing president in the Old Main building on campus on May 6.
Then, Bresciani had a busy week ahead with the semester ending and NDSU preparing for commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 14.
Bresciani, 62, said he wants to leave everything as completed and successful as possible, while acknowledging the transition that follows.
“After 12 years of living this job around the clock seven days a week, 365 days a year, to not be able to continue is going to be a life-changing moment for me,” he said.
He reflected back on accomplishments including research productivity, a successful capital campaign and the 12 new buildings or major renovations on campus.
He said his greatest sources of pride were NDSU's perseverance through the COVID-19 pandemic, building a strong sense of campus history and stellar performances by student athletes in the field of play and the classroom.
Bresciani was mostly mum, however, on why the State Board of Higher Education chose not to renew his contract.
“I probably would have to defer to the people who made that decision,” he said. “It would have been interesting to be in the room and hear what logic was used.”
A native of Napa Valley, California, Bresciani came to NDSU in 2010 after serving in administrative roles at Texas A&M University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Arizona and other schools.
He said when he first got here, there wasn't a visible sign of deep campus pride.
Bresciani asked then student body president Kevin Black if the school had a “hand signal,” and he said they made it their mission to get the “horns up” sign ingrained in student and faculty culture.
“It’s become our trademark now,” he said.
Bresciani said what drew him to Fargo was a university on the cusp of nationally recognizable success that just needed to “turn that corner.”
“We really have, on just about every measure of higher education,” he said.
Research productivity has steadily increased, garnering top-tier rankings from the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education and the National Science Foundation.
Bresciani has overseen 12 new building or major renovation projects on campus, and during his tenure, the university has cut deferred maintenance in half.
“That’s a very demanding pace, both in getting those jobs done but getting them funded,” he said.
Bresciani also points to the capital campaign “In Our Hands” that raised more than $586 million in donations and wrapped up a year early.
The NDSU Foundation said it was the largest higher education fundraising campaign in North Dakota history, with funds going toward scholarships, faculty support, programs and facilities.
Bresciani noted the success of NDSU’s athletic teams that happened with two different athletic directors during his time as president, citing football specifically with its nine national championships under three different head coaches.
“We clearly have come up with the secret sauce recipe … and we just keep making it better,” he said.
In June 2021, State Board of Higher Education Chair Nick Hacker announced Bresciani would not be given another two-year contract.
Higher education officials wouldn’t elaborate, but referred media inquiries to Bresciani’s job evaluation, which cited an eroded research standing, declining enrollment and certain hiring practices.
When asked by The Forum why he thought his contract was not renewed, Bresciani said he’d “put that behind” him.
Pressed further, he said “I have conjecture, but honestly, I have never had it explained to me." He said none of the issues raised in his job evaluation were accurate.
NDSU first obtained a Carnegie Classification of “very high research activity,” or R1, in 2005, but was downgraded to R2 in 2015.
Bresciani said that was because the calculation process changed, causing NDSU to slip just below the threshold, and that top-tier status was regained in December 2021.
Only NDSU, the University of Minnesota and Montana State University received that classification in the six-state upper Midwest region.
Bresciani acknowledged NDSU’s drop in enrollment, a common phenomenon nationwide.
The school has experienced an almost 16% decline since 2014, when the university hit a record 14,747 students.
University leaders cited competition from other schools, but Bresciani also blamed his divestment from the admissions process, which was being handled by another, since-departed senior administrator.
The tide is turning though, he said, pointing to recent large incoming freshman classes.
In hindsight, he said he would have gotten in front of the enrollment decline.
A third criticism dealt with Bresciani’s hiring of Margaret Fitzgerald as provost, who had not applied for the position, a move that led to his censure by the NDSU Faculty Senate in February 2021.
Fitzgerald, who previously served as interim provost before taking the long-term job, was chosen over five finalists and not required to participate in open forums at which faculty could have questioned her.
Bresciani has defended his decision, saying that process would have been inappropriate given her long-time service to NDSU.
There were other controversies during Bresciani’s presidency, including a 2013 flap over some 45,000 emails deleted from Bresciani’s trash bin in the weeks leading up to an open records request by the North Dakota Legislative Council.
The university blamed a new automatic purge function.
In 2016, a renewal of Bresciani’s contract was delayed by the higher ed board following his handling of media restrictions on covering Bison athletics that were later rescinded.
The board asked Bresciani to improve his performance in certain areas, including communication.
These events have long since been in Bresciani’s rearview mirror.
His focus of late has been helping incoming president David Cook , the University of Kansas vice chancellor of public affairs and economic development. Bresciani said Cook will be at “full-speed” by the time he starts.
Bresciani will spend the summer preparing to teach courses in higher education finance and administration and organization of higher education.
He’ll also create courses titled Contemporary Presidency of Universities and History of American Higher Education.
He insists he’ll be treated like any other tenured professor.
“Several faculty have already expressed, they can't wait to call me Dean instead of Mr. President or Dr. Bresciani, and I’m going to like that, too,” he said.
He’s finalized with the NDSU Foundation his plans to give his estate to the university and he and his wife Kristi Hanson, an NDSU graduate and architect, are building a retirement home in the area.
If he could do things over, he said he'd improve on virtually everything he did.
“That’s not to say I didn't do the best I could at the time,” he said. “I'm a lot better president now than I was 12 years ago, but looking back, gosh, I wish I could do it again.”