PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Mystery continues to surround what led to last week’s announcements that Tim Downs was stepping down as president of Northern State University to pursue what was described only as “a new opportunity” in higher education.

Several current and recent members of the South Dakota Board of Regents declined to answer questions about the situation. They referred KELOLAND News to the regents’ executive director, Brian Maher.

According to Maher, Downs didn’t say where he is going next. Maher confirmed that Downs was near the end of a contract. It expires June 21. Asked whether Downs was asked to resign, Maher answered, “The press releases issued by the board and NSU address the rationale for his departure.”

That answer wasn’t much help. The first sentence of the board’s news release said, “Northern State University President Timothy M. Downs has announced his resignation to pursue a new opportunity in higher education.” The first sentence of the NSU news release said the same thing. Otherwise the releases point out Downs’ accomplishments at Northern since his appointment June 27, 2016.

Asked whether Downs had already left the presidency, Maher replied, “As indicated in the board press release, we are in the process of identifying an interim president for NSU.  Veronica Paulson, VP (vice president) for finance and administration, is currently serving as the acting president.”

“President Downs will complete his move from the president’s residence on, or before, June 21,” Maher said.

The pair of resignation announcements arrived after 4 p.m. on Friday, April 16, a time and day of the week when organizations sometimes put out unfavorable news. The announcement came the same day that Northern State University Foundation president and CEO Todd Jordre retired after 17 years.

Regent Jim Thares of Aberdeen and Maher said the timing was a coincidence. They said the regents have no control over the foundations, whose roles include lining up donations.

Governor Kristi Noem during the past month announced appointments of three new regents to the nine-member board. One of the new appointees, Tony Venhuizen, spent his last day as her chief of staff Friday. Two others, Tim Rave of Baltic and Jeff Partridge of Rapid City, are former legislators.

As of noon Friday, Downs hadn’t responded to several messages from KELOLAND News sent during the past week. The Northern vacancy however came up earlier Friday, during a public discussion by members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee about the ongoing Senate Bill 55 study of state universities’ efficiencies.

Several lawmakers made general references to Downs’ salary of $260,852 for the current year. The five other presidents are paid more: Barry Dunn, South Dakota State University $390,948; Sheila Gestring, University of South Dakota $390,948; Jim Rankin, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology $358,176; Jose-Marie Griffiths, Dakota State University $287,000; and Laurie Stenberg Nichols, Black Hills State University $270,000.

Representative Randy Gross said the Northern vacancy provides an opportunity for the regents to make “a bold statement.” Representative Steven Haugaard said the public gets a strange message when people look at pay of the state university presidents while the regents raise student tuition.

Haugaard, a lawyer, said there is “a quarter million dollar difference” between salaries of the president of USD or SDSU and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Jensen, who’s paid $143,121. Regarding campuses, Haugaard said, “I think it’s important we right-size salaries as well.”

The regents didn’t renew the contracts of the previous two executive directors, Paul Beran in 2020 and Michael Rush in 2018.

The most recent replacements of university presidents came in 2019, when Stenberg Nichols succeeded Tom Jackson, who left Black Hills State to be president at Humboldt State University in California; and in 2018, when Gestring succeeded Jim Abbott upon his retirement at USD. Griffiths, appointed in 2015, is the longest-serving of the current presidents.