Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, has written to University of North Dakota President Robert Kelley and the president of the State Board of Higher Education, objecting to the board’s action Aug. 15 directing Kelley to have the anticipated transition from the Fighting Sioux nickname “substantially complete” by the end of the year.
Carlson, the House majority leader and author of a law declaring that UND’s athletic teams shall be known as the Fighting Sioux, called the board’s action “a slap in the face” of the Legislature.
“When we pass a law, you’re supposed to abide by the law until it’s changed,” he said Monday.
Grant Shaft, president of the state board, disputed Carlson’s portrayal of the situation and said in an interview that “the action of the board was entirely in line with what was discussed with the NCAA” in a face-to-face meeting state leaders arranged with the association Aug. 12 in Indianapolis.
The board “has not run afoul of the existing law,” Shaft said. “There wasn’t any gray area at this meeting with the NCAA.”
Shaft noted that Carlson “said at the time (of the Indianapolis meeting) that he never intended harm to the university and would not take any action that would harm UND, but “the timing of his letter addressed to me and President Kelley … makes me call into question whether his comments about not wanting to injure UND were hollow.”
In a letter posted to Carlson later Monday, Shaft restated his defense of the board’s actions and intent and suggested that Carlson’s statements appear to “arise out of political motivation” and “will ultimately hurt UND as it addresses scheduling and conference affiliation between now and the November special session.”
In his view, Shaft wrote, “your evolving stances conflict with the good faith efforts of the entire delegation that met with the NCAA and also conflict with your personal pledge not to take any action that would hurt UND.”
Shaft said he shared his response with Kelley, and “he has asked me to convey that he joins in this response.”
Carlson: Board action premature
In his letter, sent last Tuesday and received in the president’s office Friday, Carlson said the board’s order to resume the transition “is premature and presumptive.”
The Grand Forks Herald asked UND for a copy of the letter on Monday.
“To assume the University of North Dakota and the State Board of Higher Education may ignore a law based upon the presumption that a majority of both houses of the Legislative Assembly will repeal that law at some point in the future sets a bad precedent and demonstrates a lack of regard for the legislative process and the policymaking branch of government,” Carlson wrote.
He asked that UND “refrain from taking further action to retire the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo until such time as the Legislative Assembly directs otherwise.”
With Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Carlson led a delegation of state political and higher education leaders to Indianapolis on Aug. 12 to confront the NCAA about its effort to strike down the Fighting Sioux name and logo.
The consensus at that meeting, expressed afterward by Dalrymple and an NCAA spokesman, was that the state would resolve the issue during a special legislative session scheduled for November, presumably by amending or repealing Carlson’s law.
Dalrymple said he was concerned about potential consequences harmful to the university if the fight were to continue, and he would ask legislative leaders to delegate authority over the issue back to the state board.
Carlson said Monday that his objections are “more about the process than the issue. We said we’ll deal with it in November. I’m irritated by how quickly they acted.”
He said he had received no response from Kelley or Grant Shaft, president of the state board, and he hasn’t talked with the higher education officials since the Indianapolis showdown.
Shaft said that at the Aug. 15 board meeting, “we specifically discussed in detail what took place at our meeting with the NCAA and what the agreement among the parties was coming out of that meeting.
“We specifically discussed the status of the law, and we discussed our respect for that legislation and the fact that it is state law right now,” he said. “We were sensitive to the law and in our action we accommodated for the law and the upcoming special session.”
Shaft said “it was clear” coming out of the NCAA meeting “that the university would transition from the nickname and logo but that was not to happen before the end of the year, after the Legislature met.”
He said the governor, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Carlson and others were in the room, and “there were special efforts taken within that setting to make sure we all left on the same page” concerning the course to be followed in coming months.
“What was crystal clear to all, with perhaps the exception of Rep. Carlson, was the NCAA was going to provide UND with certain accommodations with regard to its status of being on probation,” including advising the Big Sky Conference and other NCAA member schools “that we had met with the NCAA and were making good-faith efforts to get the university out of being on sanctions.
“In exchange for that — and this was very clear and repeated by the governor and others — we need to demonstrate that we are diligently working toward retiring the nickname and logo at the November special session,” Shaft said.
“That required action on the part of the executive office, which the governor has indicated that he is going to do, the legislators indicated legislation would be introduced, and the board of higher education said we would be taking action, which we did.”
‘Mindful of the law’
Kelley did not respond directly to Carlson’s letter, but UND spokesman Peter Johnson confirmed that he had received it.
“What the board did was direct the president to plan for the transition,” Johnson said. “That’s to be ready to move ahead as quickly as possible if the Legislature takes an action that allows the state board” to proceed with retirement of the nickname and Indian-head logo.
“We’re not presuming to know what will happen in November,” Johnson said. “Who knows?”
The board, which has been laboring with the nickname issue for years, voted unanimously in the Aug. 12 teleconference meeting to instruct Kelley to plan for its retirement by the end of the year. “We have exhausted all avenues,” Shaft sad at the outset of that meeting, “and we are now going to have to retire the nickname.”
Kelley then sent a message to UND faculty, staff and students.
“Following a meeting last Friday (Aug. 12) between North Dakota officials and the leadership of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the State Board of Higher Education held a teleconference meeting today and instructed me to resume the process of planning the retirement of the nickname and logo consistent with prior Board action.
“The State Board of Higher Education extended the deadline to complete that process through December 2011. I will resume the planning process, mindful of the state law which, as of Aug. 1, directs the University of North Dakota to continue to use our nickname and logo.
“Gov. Jack Dalrymple has indicated that he will urge the North Dakota Legislature to readdress that law in the special session of the North Dakota Legislature planned for November.”
For the present, Johnson said Monday, the name remains.
Will UND’s football team take the field on Thursday as the Fighting Sioux?
“That is correct,” Johnson said.
But to Carlson, the university and state board warrant a penalty for being offsides.
“That was pretty much the discussion with the NCAA, that we are going to have a special session in November and the logo will be discussed there,” he said. “We didn’t say we’ll deal with it the next day.
“There’s still a law on the books. Somebody who’s funded by the state of North Dakota should follow it until it’s changed.
“If we pass a texting bill, would you just ignore the texting bill and say we didn’t really mean it? What does that tell the public?
“I’m hearing from a lot of people who say, ‘They put it right in your face, didn’t they?’ I don’t know if that was their intent, but that’s what they did.”
As to UND’s statement that officials have only started planning for a transition, Carlson said, “Technically, they can’t even start the planning if they follow the law.”
Chuck Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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