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NDSU presidential finalists offer range of ag experience

North Dakota State University brings five finalists for a new president. Agweek interviews each of the finalists about their insight into the “land grant” university — research, extension and teaching — philosophy and their experience with it.

The North Dakota State University logo in green, yellow and white.
Courtesy / North Dakota State University
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Agweek was granted brief phone interviews with five visiting finalist candidates for North Dakota State University. We describe the importance and role of an NDSU president in the state’s agriculture, followed by brief candidate profiles.

FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota State University is about more than agriculture, but the state’s original industry figures heavily into its success.

NDSU connects with the state through agriculture — research and Extension facilities and personnel in the state — and thereby taps into its political support. NDSU’s graduates are involved through production and processing industries. Agriculture accounts for 62% of NDSU’s research dollars.

NDSU agriculture makes its own case to the North Dakota Legislature, which provides about half of the funding for NDSU, with the rest coming from grants and contracts.

Since 1997, NDSU research and extension priorities have been set by the State Board of Agricultural and Research and Education. SBARE is a citizen organization that the Legislature tasked with setting priorities for state spending, allowing the commodity priorities sort themselves.

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NDSU presidents (or their designee) are members member of SBARE, which has 13 voting members. (Greg Lardy, NDSU vice president for agricultural affairs — heading the NDSU Experiment Station, and the college — is an ex-officio member that does not have a vote, as is the North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner.)

Five SBARE members are are appointed by the North Dakota Ag Coalition. Another five are from geographic areas. The Legislature appoints two more.

Jill Louters is the co-chair of the search committee to find a new president at NDSU. She is superintendent of the New Rockford-Sheyenne School District. On the search committee is Barry Batcheller, an NDSU engineering alum and agricultural manufacturing icon.

After the visits, the search committee will recommend an unranked slate of finalists to the State Board of Higher Education. The SBHE will conduct final interviews on Feb. 23, 2022. They expect the new president will assume their office in June 2022.

Here are brief profiles of the candidates, listed alphabetically:

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David Cook, vice chancellor for public affairs on economic development at the University of Kansas. 2022 photo.
Courtesy / North Dakota State University

David Cook, vice chancellor for public affairs on economic development at the University of Kansas since April 2020.

Cook said he has experience with land grant universities, as his undergraduate degree in 1992 was from Iowa State University at Ames. He holds master’s and doctorate degrees from University of Kansas, in 1998. From 2005 to 2008, he was director of Health and Technology Outreach. From 2008 to 2013 Cook held posts at KU Medical Center. 

“There are a lot of similarities between Iowa State and North Dakota” State, Cook said. He spent the past 14 years at the University of Kansas, at Lawrence, a medical school and had done a lot of work in Kansas to solidify the role of the university across the state, particularly in public health.

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From 2008 to 2013, Cook was with the University of Kansas Medical Center, in institutes focused on community engagement and public health. Cook said he understands that agriculture is “by far and away the most significant aspect” of NDSU’s research portfolio, and that it’s “literally a national leader” in the area. He said part of his current role is economic development, which includes agriculture.

Asked about his “vision” for NDSU agriculture, Clark said he’d focus on working with the research leadership and learning its opportunities and priorities. “My background is serving a state that is very similar to North Dakota in a way, agriculturally,” he said.

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Hesham El-Rewini is provost and vice president of academic affairs at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. 2022 photo.
Courtesy / North Dakota State University

Hesham El-Rewini, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, since July 2019. 

El-Rewini was at the University of North Dakota from July 2008 to July 2019, including serving as dean of the College of Engineering and Mines and full professor of electrical engineering, and was senior vice provost. Prior stops were at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and 11 years at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He got his doctorate in computer science in 1989 at Oregon State University — “one of the prominent land grant research institutions in the country,” he said. His wife, Sherine, completed medical training in Fargo.

At Oregon El-Rewini said he saw the importance of “access and affordability” for citizens, and “reaching to people where they are.” While at UND, he learned NDSU “shares those values” and “practices those values every day.” As engineering dean, he visited communities and legislators across the state and worked toward engineering goals, including researchers working to convert crops into jet fuel. While familiar with the farming community, he said the “land grant mission is not just about agricultural or the engineering piece, but about reaching out to every inch in the state to provide education.”

El-Rewini touted his experience in working with the State Board of Higher Education and all universities in the system, as well the agricultural communities, industry and tribal colleges. The UND student government recognized him for his support of “student-centered culture.”

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Mary Holz-Clause is acting executive chancellor the University of Minnesota in Morris and Crookston 2022 photo. Courtesy North Dakota State University
Courtesy / North Dakota State University

Mary Holz-Clause, acting executive chancellor  the University of Minnesota in Morris and Crookston since 2017.

Holz-Clause has been in positions at “tier 1 research” institutions since 1986. In this region, UMN, NDSU and Montana State University are in that category. She referred to NDSU as a “treasure.”

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She touts strengths in degree programming, international connections and student advancement. With a strong connection to agriculture and Extension, she emphasizes she would be “open to working with all different groups.” Specifically, she said she’d like to communicate career opportunities in agriculture to young people.

She has experience from three land grant universities — the University of Connecticut, Iowa State University of Science and Technology, and the University of Minnesota. She grew online degree programs at Crookston and in 2021, the UMN expanded her position to cover two campuses as acting chancellor.

At UMN, she’s worked with the Northern Crops Institute, a multi-state promotional arm for northern-grown crops, on the NDSU campus, to provide webinar capacity for certain UMN research grants. She said there are many opportunities for land grant universities to work together.

From 2014 to 2017 she was dean of agriculture at Cal Poly Pomona, California, a Hispanic-serving institution. While there, she was appointed to a 15-member California State Board of Food and Agriculture, an advisory board to the governor.

From 2011 to 2014 she was vice president for economic development at UConn. From 2006 to 2011 she was associate vice president of Extension and outreach and associate director of Iowa Cooperative Extension Service, promoting and marketing extension programs — especially value-added agriculture. Holz-Clause received all of her degrees at ISU, including a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business, a master’s in public administration and a doctorate in agriculture education and technology transfer. Her husband is a retired farmer, feedlot operator and ISU Extension specialist in beef quality and production.

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Debra Larson is provost and vice president of academic affairs at California State University in Chico. 2022 photo.
Courtesy / North Dakota State University

Debra Larson, provost and vice president of academic affairs since 2017 at California State University in Chico.

From 2011 to 2017 she was dean of the College of Engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Prior to that she was an administrator for 17 years at Northern Arizona University. She received doctorate degree in civil engineering from Arizona State University, and her bachelor and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Michigan Technological University. 

Larson said grew up in Michigan. With temperatures hovering around zero during her visit, Larson said cold weather is still in her “muscle memory” after growing up in Michigan. Larson acknowledges she has never worked at a land grant university. She said she appreciates NDSU's work in Extension but wanted to “reframe the question” when asked about the role of land grant colleges. Other institutions of of higher learning are doing similar outreach to Extension, she said, citing an example of Chico’s initiatives on healthy soils. She noted that the campus works in a multi-county effort to serve an aging population and said the institution holds a contract to educate and provide students in California to access SNAP benefits. She said she is “comfortable with agriculture, writ-large,” because of her 11 years in California where agriculture is a major economic driver.

Among other things, Larson said she was not aware of Proposition 12, a California state law voted into law in November 2018 that dictates meat and eggs sold in that state to be grown with confinement standards. It would preclude much of the meat and eggs produced in the United States. A judge on Jan. 21, 2022, ordered a delay in the state enforcing the rule.

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Michael Tidwell is immediate past president (currently on sabbatical) of the University of Texas in Tyler. 2022 photo.
Courtesy / North Dakota State University

Michael Tidwell is immediate past president (currently on sabbatical) of the University of Texas in Tyler, since January 2017.

He was dean of the college of business at Eastern Michigan University at Ypsilanti from 2012 to 2016; dean of business Bloomsburg (Pennsylvania) University in from 2010 to 2012; and Assistant dean at Clayton State University at Morrow, Georgia, from 2010 to 2012.

Tidwell noted he’d received his master’s and doctorate degrees in 2002 at Washington State University, a land grant research institution. He started his career at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where Extension work reaches into eastern Kentucky.

Asked about his experience with Extension, Tidwell said his career at Tyler included delivering a considerable amount of “Extension-based” programs, even though it was not the land grant institution. The programs brought nursing programs and health care, as well as criminal justice outreach to the eastern two-thirds of the state, as well as help with K-12 educational development, responding to community needs. During his time at Tidwell, the campus “listened to the community and delivered programs” including a small business development center in 2019. Counselors from that center became involved in helping businesses apply for Paycheck Protection Program loans during the COVID-19 crisis in 2020.

While NDSU is about more than agriculture, Tidwell said its weight and influence “is everything” at NDSU, with influences in engineering programs to agriculture itself.

“I’m a big believer in public education,” he said.

He would work to efficiently deliver knowledge acquired in university labs out to the people who need it.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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