North Dakota State University
State of the University Address

President Dean L. Bresciani

Thursday, September 29, 2011


I have to admit, it’s really hard to believe a year has passed since I made my first address to you. Time must indeed fly when you are having fun?

A year ago, we talked about the unprecedented long-range opportunities facing North Dakota State University. We were at a high point in NDSU’s success, and we were in a prospering state at a time when virtually every other state in the nation was facing dire economic conditions. We pondered the possibilities for more effectively leveraging NDSU’s potentials as a proven means of contributing more to, and forever changing the quality of life, and the economic breadth and strength of North Dakota. We talked about how our teaching and research, that started with such simple beginnings as painting fence posts, had led to our becoming a leader in related scientific fields.

The opportunity to improve life in North Dakota for decades to come was a laudable pursuit. But NDSU, with a very new president, first needed to navigate a demanding legislative session during which the value of higher education was often under more scrutiny than ever before. At the same time, we seemed to face challenges at every turn—from meeting the demands on NDSU with existing budgets to moderating enrollment growth; from construction issues at Minard Hall to providing adequate classroom space, to the declining quality and availability of lab space; from research resource concerns in light of federal funding rescissions, to the challenges created by another year of state-wide flooding, which in many locations was without precedent.

It would have been reasonable to simply stand our ground. It would perhaps have been too much to expect for us to accomplish anything beyond that. I ask you to be understanding of those challenges, and how they held back the progress we might otherwise have experienced.

Except that, last January,we were reclassified to the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education’s elite category of “very high research,” making us the first North Dakota university to be classified with the top research universities in the nation.

Except that, we producedanother unprecedented increase in research productivity as measured by the National Science Foundation.

Except that, over the past year, we continued on a purposeful and positive trajectory in most standard measures of university success.

Except that, our students succeeded in an increasingly vibrant state job market, which is keeping more young North Dakotans here and drawing more talented young people from across the country to North Dakota.

Except that, our student athletes are some of the most academically successful in the NCAA Division-I, while at the same time contributing to one of the nation’s most winning athletic programs.

Except that, NDSU has—in just one year—stabilized an untenable internal financial situation that had put at very real risk our ability to maintain the educational environment we offer.

Except that, for the first time in over a decade, the funding of higher education and the under-funded nature of NDSU has been convincingly demonstrated as inequitable—leading to legislative demands to completely revamp how North Dakota public higher education is funded.

Oh and except that, our national profile has continued to skyrocket, thanks to achievements ranging from appearing on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and other national media coverage, to the gutsy televised run at a national championship by our football team, or the phenomenal success golfer Amy Anderson had at the U.S. Women’s Open, or the academic initiatives we have embarked on, with new and exciting senior institutional leaders joining our efforts.

Is it just me or is there a trend here? Maybe instead of a year of exceptions, we’ve just had an exceptional year.

As you know, I was drawn here by the almost limitless potentials I saw in NDSU, our state and our emerging national and international achievement. You have been proving that wasn’t just a perception or a reflection of my desire to move somewhere with better weather than Texas. Our successes, and our contributions to the state and nation, are a growing reality that few can deny.

During the past year, I have visited with many of you and continued to travel throughout the state to hear from the citizens we serve. I have continued to listen and learn a great deal about North Dakota and North Dakota State University. My first impressions were not wrong. The potential here is exceptional, if not without parallel in the nation.  As we continue listening and responding to state needs, and as our success at doing so becomes better understood, I sense a growing appreciation that NDSU has become one of the most successful aspects of our state’s vitality.

Thanks to the past year’s strategic planning process, which helped us further identify our potentials, we learned even more. Our goal throughout the process was to take fuller advantage of our existing areas of academic excellence, or those with proximal potential to achieve excellence. In the final phase of that strategic planning process, each college identified participants to delve into who we are, what we do best and where specifically we can further excel.

I had hoped the group would suggest solidifying the “Top 100” overall rank we’ve already achieved.  Or that the committee would suggest we pursue having a few select programs in the top 50 of the nation. In fact, though, the planning group came back defining “program excellence,” for a select number of our leading academic endeavors, as top 20 national ranking. 

In the process of discussing the future of NDSU, the group also demonstrated that NDSU has something few organizations ever enjoy. It’s called “Unity of Purpose.”  The participants might easily have seen their roles in that final planning phase as last-stand advocates for their own areas, but instead they saw the bigger opportunity; they fought for each other and for NDSU.  

In the words of one faculty participant: “There was a tremendous respect for all disciplines. It was impressive to see an internationally recognized chemist argue for inclusive language so that the Fine Arts would clearly see their part in a culture of excellence. There also was overwhelming support for the idea that NDSU’s excellence hinges on our advancement as a unit. We go together or we don’t get anywhere.”

Unity of Purpose is a powerful thing.

They also further confirmed we are an institution committed to three key elements that make us unique among our peers nationally. We truly are a student focused, land grant, research university. Last year I suggested that most other leading universities have sacrificed one if not two of those important values.  NDSU has not. In a number of ways, including the strategic planning process, we’ve found these themes to be amazingly consistent across the campus; if anything, that is increasingly evident. 

Let’s spend a little time talking about those exceptional highlights I mentioned at the start.

First and foremost is being named to the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education’s elite category of Very High Research Activity. We are the first, and we are the only North Dakota university in this category, and it represents a critical turning point in NDSU’s history. I like to tell people it means we get invited to a different kind of party.

This classification gives us entrée to collaborations and funding sources that were never possible before for a North Dakota university. We have joined the nation’s top 108 public and private universities—company including the likes of Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Texas A&M, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin. That becomes even more impressive when you consider some of the outstanding universities that are not in that group: Kansas State, Utah State, New Mexico State and even Clemson University. As a result, we’ve already been in discussions with several major companies, and expect more lucrative partnerships to develop in the near future.   

At the same time, we have achieved another year of unprecedented growth in research productivity, from $114 million in NSF research expenditures in 2009 to $126 million this past year. That’s more than a 10 percent growth in research productivity this past year, at a time when many if not most of our peer institutions are declining by as much or more than that rate.    

For a 12th year in a row, the demand by new students for NDSU resulted in a record freshman enrollment, even though due to budget constraints we were forced to virtually eliminate our marketing efforts, and to the extent possible moderate the overall enrollment growth that had set NDSU records for the previous eleven years.

We are increasing efforts to bolster retention and graduation rates, which already mirror national averages. We are doing so by continuing our tradition of attracting and retaining well-prepared students who are purposefully seeking a traditional, residential, full-time college experience in a demanding research university environment, leading to graduation and either immediate professional careers in their major fields or graduate studies. NDSU already leads all 11 North Dakota System campuses in the proportion of students physically present in traditional classroom settings; some 95 percent of our students do so. No other university in the state comes close to matching that.

And the word is out that students here work with top researchers and faculty who are committed to their education. The post-graduation success of our students against their peers illustrates the implications of that exciting relationship.  In fact, a record 89 percent of our undergraduate students found employment, in their major field of study.

At the same time, we are catalyzing initiatives aimed at further increasing retention and graduation rates, with several initiatives. Among them are collaboration efforts in advising, first year and second year experience and better resources to track student progress. In the near future, we will be proposing a new “Student Success Tuition Model,” which we believe will not only address those goals, but provide a better and more understandable model for the other universities in North Dakota.

As many of you are aware, our quality and affordability compare exceptionally well with virtually any peer around the country, and that drew the interest of a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.  His interest resulted in front page Saturday coverage this past summer.  The article, "North Dakota is a hot draw," reported the value of higher education in North Dakota, and that out-of-state students come to North Dakota because—even at the higher tuition they pay—our rates are competitive with their schools at home. Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Kevin Helliker spent months researching his story, which was originally to focus on broader economic developments in North Dakota. But as he studied and interviewed people over a three-month period, he became more and more interested in featuring the role of higher education, and specifically NDSU.

Earlier I mentioned the success of football and golf, but I need to share with you that the entire athletics program achieved great success in the past year. That’s an important part of offering an engaging and exciting university environment, but it is important for much more.

That success is bringing widespread national attention to both North Dakota and NDSU through hours of television and press coverage. That is visibility we would otherwise be unlikely to draw much less be able to afford. Reaction to last Saturday’s heroic football victory over Minnesota serves to punctuate that point.  Last fall, all five sports advanced to postseason competition, making us one of only 13 schools in Division-I to do so and the only FCS Division-I school in the country to do so.

Most importantly, we achieved that athletic success and national visibility without losing our focus on the student aspect of athletics. More than half of our student athletes earned a 3.0 or better, and 15 have perfect 4.0s. I have worked with four D-I athletic programs, three of which were some of the largest and most renown in the nation. Let me assure you that our student athletes’ academic statistics are truly fantastic.

Two of our most noteworthy student athletes, Whitney Carlson and Amy Anderson, excelled not just in their sports but received national recognition by the NCAA as some of the best students in college sports. After a phenomenal track and field season, Carlson has been selected as a top 30 finalist for the 2011 NCAA Woman of the Year award.

Anderson, who has a perfect 4.0 in accounting, not only qualified for but was one of the early leaders of her first U.S. Open. 

Our students’ accomplishments are significant in quiet but equally important ways. Take our storied ROTC program, the Bison Brigade. For the past three years, our program has commissioned officers in the top 25 of more than 5,000 candidates from the entire nation. They’ve done so while the program’s overall GPA has stayed above a 3.0.

What does that cost North Dakota? You’ll find it interesting to note that more than a third of a million dollars in scholarships come to NDSU through the ROTC program, and overall, the program contributes more than a million dollars in associated expenditures to our local economy.

Not unrelated, the national media certainly took note of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ inspiring address at commencement, where he also commissioned our students becoming second lieutenants. We were honored that NDSU’s graduates had the opportunity to hear from such a notable patriot, scholar and public servant.

On a different note, a recent independent study has shown the tremendous positive impacts the NDSU Research and Technology Park provides the North Dakota economy.  Among many highlights, the report showed that the 19 businesses at the park account for nearly 900 on-site jobs and another 550 related off-site jobs. No other business incubator program in North Dakota has such a substantial record of proven success. The park’s leadership believes those high-end jobs are just a start, and at their board of directors retreat last week, set a goal of more than doubling those figures by bringing the total of new on-site jobs created by the Research and Technology Park to 2,000 by 2020.

That said, agriculture is and continues to be the leading economic driver of the state, and NDSU’s role in its vitality is critical and increasingly appreciated.  NDSU successfully partners with the State Board of Agricultural Research and Education, and that has proven to be a recipe for success. North Dakota historically leads the nation in the production of many commodities, with steadily increasing markets outside of our nation’s borders.

NDSU’s Greenhouse Complex, the largest research facility of its size and scope in the nation, is already operational and with all funding now in place, is nearing full completion. As anticipated, the facility is drawing international attention.  Similarly, the new NDSU Beef Research facility has opened and is the second largest and only university-based facility in the country. Complimenting NDSU’s attention to livestock production research are our grassland management efforts.  Advances there, and at our other major beef cattle research facilities in Dickinson and Streeter, as well as Carrington and Hettinger, increase and strengthen the breadth of our state’s agricultural tradition.

On the western side of the state, our research and development interests in down-hole imaging for the energy industry have the potential to increase the efficiency, effectiveness and yield of oil-patch wells and as such has industry-changing implications. Doing so could extend the current oil play well past our lifetimes.

Through the exclusive support of private donors, and a gracious lead gift to the community from Sanford Health, we’re also making great progress on the campaign to upgrade the Bison Sports Arena’s basketball, wrestling and indoor track facility. In addition to great venues for NDSU athletes, facilities of this caliber provide a public venue spanning the entire community, from grade school through adults, and in combination with the Fargodome will allow NDSU to offer the most substantial collection of facilities between Seattle and Minneapolis for athletic competitions and other major events.

Another gift I want to tell you about comes from a longtime staff member. Bernadine Richtman worked as a secretary in the music department for many years and was greatly respected by faculty and students alike. NDSU’s success hinges on staff like Ms. Richtman and for that we owe our appreciation. Ms. Richtman’s support has continued after her passing. She left her life savings to what she considered her life’s work—the education of our students. It has proven to be the second largest gift in the history of the NDSU music program. 

Her passion is not without rival. Last month I had the opportunity to call on 94-year-old Catherine Cater, NDSU’s first African American faculty member. Her vibrancy, enthusiasm and passion for what we do were nothing short of inspirational. 

Those individuals are a powerful reminder of unity of purpose on the part of the faculty and staff who devote so much energy and talent to our institution.

In August, we welcomed a senior Clemson University administrator and internationally renowned astrophysicist as our new provost. Dr. Bruce Rafert hit the ground running and has demonstrated insights and experience that are providing a critical catalyst to our initiatives, while also tending to many organizational and academic policy artifacts from the NDSU of more than a decade ago. His insights and enthusiasm are rejuvenating everyone around him.  That transition in senior academic leadership is just one of many that will bring new energies, vision and capacities to the forefront.

Building on last year’s strategic planning process, our new provost has already begun to translate those ideals into what he refers to as NDSU’s “Academic Roadmap.” As a data-driven astrophysicist, he’s plotting our next steps very carefully.  The Academic Roadmap will define a specific path the university will follow to take it from being a rapidly emerging research university to achieving even higher levels of national and international distinction. The Roadmap will also help us provide counsel to thought leaders across the state concerning specific areas of responsible resource investment in what we do at NDSU. That will enable us to leverage our land grant mission, helping the state achieve continued economic development and enhanced global recognition.

The provost has similarly engaged the continuing success and work of NDSU’s NSF funded Advance Forward grant team and their important efforts to improve campus climate and gender equity within the faculty. Doing so is a key component of ongoing efforts to make NDSU a welcoming, diverse and supportive environment for our entire campus community.  This year, the Department of Veterinary and Microbiological Sciences received a well-deserved award for supporting women faculty in all aspects of their work.

Dr. Rafert has also noted that NDSU’s global drawing power is very strong and that we have more international students than Clemson, yet another sign that NDSU contributes as much or more to North Dakota than even some of the nation’s leading higher education institutions.

As I mentioned earlier, NDSU has been an institution with a long history of under-funding, and as an ironic result of its successes over the last decade, was just a year ago at a financial precipice. Without being melodramatic, that was about to spell disaster. I did not consider that challenge insurmountable but conservatively estimated it would take several years to address before we could continue to develop NDSU’s potentials. 

Through untold hard work, sacrifices from virtually every segment of the campus, challenging discussions with state leaders, and not just a willingness but in my experience an unprecedented demand by our students to increase their own tuition, it is an unanticipated but exceptional pleasure to share with you that for the first time in a long time, NDSU has stopped the financial slide we were in, and today already enjoys a responsibly balanced budget.

While the recent legislative session was by most accounts one of the most challenging in history, there were a number of very positive outcomes.

The governor and our legislative representatives should be credited with maintaining strong compensation packages and providing critical additional operating funds to the state’s higher education institutions.

The organized efforts of our friends in the legislative process was also a positive outcome. NDSU alumni, friends and statewide business leaders articulated their support of NDSU through the new “Bison Caucus.” Within a few short months of forming, the Caucus became an effective influence in the legislative process. From all indications that was just a start, and I’m told they plan to have an even more substantial impact in the future.

All of these highlights from the past year illustrate the unity of purpose I referenced earlier and the ability to make a difference in the lives of the students and citizens we serve. We can be exceptionally proud of what we have done this past year and what we have the capacity to do in the future.

As we move forward, one of the challenges we face is a crisis of demographics—which the state’s two research universities are uniquely positioned to help address. A steadily declining college age population, if not reversed, will result in economic catastrophe. Advances in farming technology, which coincidentally result in fewer jobs, will not be the solution.  Nor will the energy sector—most workers are not here intending to become North Dakotans nor do they contribute to our resident tax base. 

Higher education, and more specifically our state’s two research universities, draw more young people to North Dakota than any other feature of our economy.  The preparation we provide them for successful employment increasingly leads to them staying and taking their first jobs in North Dakota, where they contribute back to our state through far more than the additional tuition they pay to be here.  We need to do a much better job of explaining those advantages to everyone we come in contact with. Every North Dakotan needs to know about and appreciate the advantages brought to North Dakota through the state’s research universities.

An almost 7:1 return on investment. Don’t let anyone mislead you; we are a state investment with no comparison. For every dollar of state support coming to NDSU, we return almost seven dollars to the state’s economy. Increasingly, North Dakotans and their representatives are recognizing that contribution; in fact, that contribution is becoming undeniable. Few if any features of North Dakota bring more external resources, more new businesses, more new jobs and more new people to live and work in our state than its research universities. We do so—while at the same time self-generating three quarters of our annual operating budget. 

Please don’t hear me wrong—without state support we could not succeed, and North Dakotans should be credited for a long history of respect for and funding of the state’s higher education efforts. That said, NDSU has never enjoyed an equitable level of support that would maximize our capacity to contribute back to the state, and that holds us back in substantial ways. When NDSU is held back, the state of North Dakota is held back.

After decades of facing that challenge, the good news is that over the past year a broad-based recognition has emerged. The higher education funding mechanism in North Dakota is broken, and NDSU’s funding is an inarguable illustration of that point. The State Board of Higher Education, legislative representatives and the governor have all called for study and rebuilding of that funding mechanism.  I cannot imagine a scenario emerging from that in which NDSU will not receive more equitable support, and that will lead to better educating our students and even greater contributions to our state and nation.

But please hear me on this point—there is work to be done if we’re to realize our potential—the opportunity to contribute and share in leading our state to a future never before possible. Today, right now, leading up to and throughout the next legislative session, our job–my job, your job—will be to help our neighbors, our civic leaders and our legislative representatives to understand and appreciate the impact and see the unique and powerful potential that  NDSU offers. That’s not just our challenge; that’s not just our opportunity; it is our responsibility. Each and every one of us needs to become personally engaged in making those individuals aware of our role, our contributions and our potentials to accelerate North Dakota’s success. We need to encourage their support and assure ourselves that they are hearing four simple messages:

  1. No aspect of our state, other than agriculture, more impacts the future of North Dakota than higher education, and no institution in the state does so better than NDSU. That’s been confirmed by Moody’s Investment, and both the National Science Foundation and the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.
  2. Ironically and in spite of that, NDSU has been underfunded relative to other North Dakota colleges and universities; that is irrefutable, inexplicable and bad business for our state and its residents. Current per-student funding at NDSU, if doubled, would still be less than several of our state’s other higher education institutions.
  3. NDSU provides a documented return on invest of almost $7 on every $1 of state support. As such, we are a state investment without comparison.
  4. We appreciate the public support we receive, and the legislative support we anticipate will increase in the future; alumni and friends of NDSU have promised to track and lend their encouragement of that support from our state’s leaders.

These four simple messages, and bringing attention to them, are critical to our future and our success. So much so that you will be provided a reminder card today as you leave, so that you can literally take those messages away with you. 

I’ve talked about the role of higher education in our state, and about NDSU specifically, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance and increasing level of our partnerships with other public colleges and universities in North Dakota. Most obvious of course is our sister research university to the north. After decades of unproductive competition and at times even antagonism between the two, a new and growing relationship has emerged between NDSU and UND. The potentials of that relationship started with the collaborative development and initiation of a graduate program in public health. We also collaboratively implemented a shared undergraduate entrepreneurship program which is similarly addressing emerging state needs, and our growing cooperation has most recently been demonstrated by a shared bid and successfully establishing one of the few FAA locations in the nation for research and development of unmanned aircraft navigation. The potentials of this latest development, in a field anticipated to soon grow exponentially past military applications, is almost boundless as are the potential business and manufacturing implications that may result for North Dakota.

Those initiatives would not have been practical for either university to initiate independently, and exemplify the advantages and potential impact when North Dakota’s two research universities work together to solve critical state needs.   The feedback and enthusiasm I’ve heard for that new relationship, from literally every corner of the state, has bolstered our efforts to collaborate. I am pleased to report an exceptional partner in President Robert Kelley; UND is fortunate to have him as president, and I am fortunate to have him not only as a colleague but as a personal friend.

More at home, our long-standing Tri-College arrangement–the oldest such consortium in the country—is another shining example of the advantages offered through collaboration among colleges and universities. The recently created undergraduate program in vaccinology will be immediately starting to educate a workforce for jobs emerging from NDSU’s new Center for Biopharmaceutical Research and Production.

We also collaborate with and support the North Dakota State College of Science, both with their main campus in Wahpeton, and their growing presence we encourage in Fargo. NDSCS is an important element to North Dakota post-secondary education. Together we provide one of our state’s best pipelines of trained workers and leaders of the economy. 

In an example on the other side of the state, our prospering NDSU Research and Extension Center in Dickinson has become a central feature of that community. In an additional role as faculty, the center’s staff also make possible the undergraduate programs in agriculture and natural resource management at Dickinson State University.

These are just a few examples of NDSU’s partnering with sister institutions and a direction and contribution I anticipate expansion of in the future.

As I’ve mentioned earlier in this address, we know who we are and what we do best. But we need to get much better at sharing our story with others. Part of better describing ourselves, our mission and our role will be to narratively and visually enhance and be more consistent in how we represent NDSU. If we are to be recognized as a unique and focused institution with a national and international presence, we must make substantial improvements in the definition, branding and imaging of NDSU. Doing otherwise is not considered an option at any leading university in the country, and we cannot inhibit our success by overlooking that concern.

You will need to be an active part of that effort. Think about what you as an individual do on a daily basis that contributes to our being a student focused, land grant, research university. That unique combination is who we are, it's what we do and most importantly—it’s why we matter. You are the primary component of doing so; the basic ingredient in the recipe; the alchemy that makes it all possible. When we align how we think of and describe NDSU within that framework—we exponentially increase the power of our messages.

In spite of all I’ve just said, though, at the end of the day some will undoubtedly still question just how important NDSU is to the future of North Dakota. It may be fair to ask that question even more broadly—does higher education really matter?

To be honest, my own father questions me about that, and my choosing a lifelong career in higher education. In fairness, that’s largely because his aspiration was for me to take over his business delivering fuel and agricultural supplements to farms and ranches in Northern California. Don’t hear me wrong; my father and his work are an inspiration to me, even if I have to admit that he remains a little let down by my suit-and-tie job versus doing what he calls “real” work. But let me tell you a little more about my father and mother, and why our family story so resonates with me in regard to the value of higher education.

My father was the youngest and first English-speaking member of his Italian immigrant family. They came to this country as field workers in California. It wasn’t an easy life, and that’s a story many North Dakotans can appreciate. By the third grade, my father also found himself orphaned. Education was never important to him and he never finished grade school; finding a place to stay and enough food to eat was the only focus he and his three brothers knew. My mother’s family of eight, not much better off, moved from Colorado to California during the dust bowl days, in one car, with whatever belongings they could fit in, strap down or tie on. 

Ultimately, though, hard work, grit and determination led to my parents slowly building a family business on their old dairy farm. The business grew and prospered, and my parents now enjoy sending me postcards from foreign travels, sharing how much they enjoy spending my inheritance!

However, and please hear this point—without higher education—their story of hard work leading to success is unlikely to be one repeated in the future. In fact, nationwide, estimates are that 63 percent of American jobs will require some postsecondary education or training by 2018, and North Dakota isn’t exempt. A stunning 70 percent of jobs in North Dakota are estimated to require post-secondary education by 2018. That’s only six years off.

Obviously, my family didn’t enjoy a long tradition of valuing higher education.  They didn’t even enjoy the opportunity for it. But they supported my going to college and having the potential for a better life. That took some patience on their part—it would be fair to say that I had no idea what to do at college and they could offer little direction on that front. But ultimately, I did find my academic niche and the life-changing experience that higher education can represent. My life, and how I defined it and the world around me, was forever changed. 

Nobody in my extended family could help but notice and be profoundly moved by that transformation. That was so much the case, that every sibling and cousin after me has pursued at least an undergraduate degree. I’m proud to say that the first magna cum laude in our family was just awarded to a cousin’s daughter last spring at Sacramento State University. That sends chills down the spine for someone like me who is just one generation removed from immigrant farm workers who could in English neither read nor write their own names.

That is why higher education is so important to me, and to those it impacts—sometimes, whether they realize it or not. There are few if any activities in life that can contribute more to us as individuals, but more importantly, to the people around us. It is an honor to work in higher education and an honor to be part our work at one of the nation’s top-ranked, student focused, land grant, research universities—where we are today accomplishing and contributing more to our state and nation than ever before in history. 

Thank you for allowing me to be a part of that and for your exceptional work and support that makes it possible to change the lives of those around us.



Top of page