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Mitchel T. Keller, Published November 22 2009

Understand the stakes at NDSU

I read with concern Josh Swanson’s opinion piece in Monday’s (Nov. 16) Forum about the North Dakota State University presidential search. I do not doubt that Swanson wants what is best for NDSU. However, his arguments show a lack of understanding of what it takes to lead a research university. I would like to take this opportunity to provide greater insight from an NDSU alumnus (B.S. mathematics, 2004) who will in May 2010 earn a Ph.D. from the Georgia Institute of Technology, a top 10 public research university. At both NDSU and Georgia Tech, I have served as a student leader and worked closely with senior administrators. These experiences have given me an understanding of the type of person NDSU should seek.

One cannot argue that Doug Burgum has not been successful in business or that he does not have many of the qualities the next president of NDSU should have. However, a university is not a corporation. One of a university president’s responsibilities is to recommend which faculty members should be granted tenure after extensive review by faculty committees. This is unlike any hiring or promotion decision a corporate executive will ever make. Faculty members are not unreasonable in expecting that the person making the final recommendation will have experience with the type of activities on which they are evaluated.

I fail to see how Swanson’s comparison to Shakespeare can be applied here. Professor Rupiper Taggart did not claim that only those with a Ph.D. are capable of producing materials suitable for instruction. Instead, she was simply quoted as saying that faculty want to be able to seek leadership from someone who understands what they do.

Success in the business world often does not translate well to leadership in higher education. An example is Chancellor Erroll B. Davis Jr. of the University System of Georgia. Davis, who has an MBA, was hired to lead the USG after a career as an energy industry executive. His prior experience in higher education was sitting on the governing boards of the University of Wisconsin System, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Chicago. Shortly after being named chancellor in 2006, he surprised college and university presidents with a plan to fix each student’s tuition rate for four years. The plan was quickly approved by the Board of Regents and worked until the economic crisis struck. Now, USG institutions are hamstrung in terms of budgets and must find backdoor ways to increase student fees in the middle of the year to offset budget cuts and the inability to raise tuition. Davis and his initiatives are not very popular within the USG community. The

fixed-tuition program has already been discontinued for new students. Other changes will likely be undone or significantly revised when he leaves.

A Ph.D. does not automatically give someone the credentials to lead a research university like NDSU. In fact, there may be excellent academic leaders with other terminal degrees who have served as faculty members and should be considered. There may also be individuals of interest who have spent time in both the private sector and the academy. For instance, the current president of the California Institute of Technology and past chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison both have had success in industry, as faculty members, and as university administrators. NDSU’s next president need not have followed the traditional path to that role, but it would be a disservice to the institution and the state to hire someone who does not have experience as a faculty member at a research university of comparable or greater stature.

Swanson is correct to point out that the wrong choice of president can lead to a significant setback for NDSU. I hope the public and the media will allow the decision to be made by those who truly understand what is at stake.

Keller is a 2004 graduate of NDSU in mathematics. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology.