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William C. Marcil, Published November 08 2009

Forum publisher: Put house affair behind us; focus on higher education

It’s time to step back and review the North Dakota State University president’s house debacle.

First, a brief history of the NDSU Development Foundation and the role it has played in the growth of the university and higher education throughout North Dakota.

In 1971, a group of visionary private citizens decided a private philanthropic foundation could assist NDSU in its future growth and development. That group included people like Harold Schafer, Buck Gallagher, Reuben W. Askanase, Katherine Burgum, C. Warner Litten, Gilmore Schjeldahl, Joe Thompson, Mel Ulteig and others. I was also privileged to be a member of that organization.

One of the group’s first projects was purchasing artificial turf for Dakotah Field. Over the years, projects have included helping build: Askanase Hall, Reineke Fine Arts Center, the NDSU Alumni Center, Barry Hall, Ellig Sports Complex, Bison Sports Arena, and various other projects. Newman Outdoor Field was a joint project funded by the NDSU Development Foundation and the NDSU Athletic Department.

In addition, the foundation has provided funding for student scholarships and faculty development. The foundation sponsors the highly successful Bidders Bowl, which brings in a substantial amount of money dedicated to student scholarships and brings the community and the university closer together.

The NDSU Development Foundation has been a huge supporter of the university and the state. The same commitment from the University of North Dakota Development Foundation has benefited UND and the state. For instance, the UND Foundation has contributed more than $189 million during the past years alone to fund scholarships and other university projects. What would the UND campus be without The Chester Fritz Memorial Auditorium and the Ralph Engelstad Arena, all built with private money?

The latest such project at NDSU – the president’s house – has become a silly debate among the Development Foundation, the chancellor’s office, the Board of Higher Education, the Chapmans, radio talk show hosts, and anybody with an opinion.

Yes, mistakes were made: the Development Foundation’s lack of oversight on the project; the Chapmans’ push for an early completion; the NDSU facilities management involvement in the landscaping agreement that was not spelled out; the chancellor’s office; the Board of Higher Education that had no formal progress reports. There is plenty of blame to go around and a lot of silly finger pointing.

But, let’s face it: From a taxpayer’s point of view, the two president’s houses are a real deal. We, the taxpayers of North Dakota, received millions of dollars in assets for little to nothing, which reduces the state’s future costs for providing housing for the presidents.

I personally disagree with the private development foundations of the two schools paying any of the site preparation or landscaping costs. That’s the state’s responsibility (Maybe the Legislature will request both development foundations to mow the lawn and shovel the sidewalks, too).

Yes, the Marcil family, which provided $1 million to each of the president’s home projects, is extremely disappointed in the circumstances surrounding management of the NDSU president house project. On the other hand, we congratulate the UND Development Foundation and UND for a project well done. It’s too bad the UND project has been characterized similarly to NDSU’s. That’s not the case at all, in my opinion.

We should remember the positive aspects of both projects. The two houses needed to be replaced. Now we have two beautiful homes that showcase the two universities, higher education, and North Dakota. More students and high-level dignitaries will visit these two homes than any other facility in the state. A perfect example recently presented itself when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer visited Fargo. Is there a better place to entertain Mr. Ballmer?

We need to get this affair behind us. Too much damage has already been done. NDSU lost arguably its most successful president, and divisions have developed between the Development Foundation, the Board of Higher Education, leaders in the Legislature and NDSU. It’s time to step back, take a deep breath, and start the healing process. All the players need to get back on the same page to continue quality higher education at UND, NDSU and all of North Dakota’s institutions of higher education.

Marcil is chairman and CEO of Forum Communications Co., and publisher of The Forum.