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Published October 18 2009

Forum editorial: Chapman a dynamic leader

Despite all the recent hubbub over spending controversies, the overwhelming and enduring legacy of Joseph Chapman’s presidency of North Dakota State University will be that of a transformational leader who helped the institution make quantum leaps in many areas.

Chapman’s resignation following criticism of private foundation expenditures – including cost overruns of the new president’s house and a trip to Washington to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration with his family – is a sad end to a distinguished presidency that has benefited students, the university and the entire state in lasting ways. His achievements during his 11-year tenure were many and significant.

The Chapman years will stand out as an era of remarkable progress at NDSU. His hallmark achievements include a significant expansion of graduate programs, leaps in research and technology initiatives, dramatic growth in student enrollment and the establishment of the downtown campus, a move that extended the university’s integration into the community.

He brought NDSU – and North Dakota – to a higher profile by leading the Bison’s move to Division I athletics. He raised faculty salaries and established a distinguished professor program, two examples of his efforts to attract and keep the best academic talent. The increased research infrastructure translates into direct benefits for students, who are exposed to knowledge and opportunities that simply weren’t available before, and opens the door to spinoffs and partnerships with business.

All the new buildings and programs form the tangible evidence of Chapman’s achievements. Underlying them are the intangibles, a leadership style defined by enthusiasm and vision that created an atmosphere that fostered creativity and growth.

Questions have been raised about his use of a discretionary expense account provided by the NDSU Development Foundation, a fund also available to other high-ranking university officials. While it’s true that some of Chapman’s expenditures struck many as imprudent, it’s also true that the president had enablers on the part of the development foundation. In essence, he had a blank checkbook, and he naturally made use of it. In the context of his many contributions, the spending controversies are an unfortunate blemish.

It’s no wonder that students and others, including Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, are urging Chapman to stay. But the State Board of Higher Education has unanimously accepted his resignation, with regret, and Chapman sounds like a man who now is looking forward to a new chapter.

If that turns out to be the case, he will leave behind a lasting legacy. Chapman has set in place a vision, aided by momentum, that has positioned NDSU well for the future. His successor will inherit a first-rate, dynamic university – and will have big shoes to fill. It’s not easy to follow a man who defined an era.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.