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James Ferragut, Published October 18 2009

Ferragut: Chapman unjustly reviled

Trashing public figures has become one of America’s favorite pastimes, a sick, but pleasurable exercise in making us not feel so bad about ourselves. Whether it’s reading the National Enquirer or viewing a stupid reality show, we love watching the strong fall because we revel in the knowledge that someone else has it worse than us. The recent dismembering of North Dakota State University President Joe Chapman’s stellar reputation has been fodder for the masses who are too thick to understand how this happened and why.

Chapman earned his lofty position on the highest perch because of his brilliant, passionate and focused drive to drag NDSU out of mediocrity to a respected state university that has grown beyond expectations. This growth is most obvious to the public by the seamless transition to Division I athletics. But also witness the sheer growth of the student population, the expansion of the campus to downtown Fargo, the addition of academic programs and the staggering growth financially and of the credibility of NDSU as a research university.

Anyone with their eyes half open should understand that the changes at NDSU were directed under the gifted leadership of Chapman. The entire face of Fargo has changed because of his vision.

The revealing of the NDSU president’s home cost overruns to the public in the eleventh hour, just weeks before completion, was a huge PR gaffe. Had the public been apprised of the changing job specs and associated costs as they occurred, stakeholders would have been prepared to deal with the news rationally. Instead we have to deal with the inevitable fallout and histrionics of the media blame game.

Where was the accountability of that project from the foundation? Where were the checks and balances as the costs of the project increased? Has anyone ever built a home, remodeled a house or a kitchen without the project coming in over the estimate? Overruns in construction are as absolute as death and taxes, so why the surprise and shock on this one? For my money, it’s because the information to the media and public wasn’t managed and communicated when the project was in process, in real time with real transparency. Why is Chapman being reviled for this project? He is the tenant, not the contractor.

The president has taken unfair heat for the expenses incurred while taking his family to the presidential inauguration. Again, a proactive public relations manager should have communicated the reasons for hiring a private plane. NDSU’s private plane was grounded for mechanical reasons, period. I’d rather have the president of NDSU representing our state and our city at a series of meetings in Washington, D.C., than watching the inaugural events in his slippers at home.

As for wife Gale, who actively traveled and promoted and positioned NDSU as a premier player while the foundation continued to look for new funding sources, project expansions and new partnerships: Were her efforts worth $50,000? With her crowded schedule, I’d say she’s been underpaid.

Most of you don’t want to understand that the cost of doing business comes with a price. The price we’re going to pay is losing the most visionary and effective leader this community has ever seen. Fiscal transparency has been the calling card for every business this past year. I cannot and will not hold Chapman responsible for this public lynching. I blame the foundation, the lack of a check and balance process and the incompetence of NDSU’s public relations management. And I blame the press for their maniacal feeding frenzy in a relentless quest to tar and feather this gentle man, this human soul who has done so much for our community.

There are times when it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission, but I’m afraid in this case, it’s too late.

Ferragut, a regular opinion columnist, is a vice president of marketing at a local bank.