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Mark Kennedy aims to be a collaborative leader as UND's president

Photos by Brace Hemmelgarn/ Twins Photographer1 / 3
Photos by Brace Hemmelgarn/ Twins Photographer2 / 3
Photos by Brace Hemmelgarn/ Twins Photographer3 / 3

Mark Kennedy's first day as UND's president will likely be unlike any other in his tenure.

Instead of spending the day in an office, Kennedy wound up on the pitcher's mound at Target Field, throwing out the first pitch before Friday evening's Rangers-Twins game.

"I do not want how you judge Mark Kennedy as president of UND to be determined by the quality of my pitching," he said.

The former Minnesota congressman and businessman took over as UND's 12th president Friday, succeeding Interim President Ed Schafer and President Robert Kelley, who retired Jan. 14.

With a background both in the political and business world, Kennedy said he is uniquely positioned to cement UND as the premier flagship university of the northern plains, as well as have UND be the chief opportunity engine for the state.

"It's hard for me to comprehend how you can run an organization as complex as UND without business experience," he said. "It's hard for me to understand how you can run an organization with as many constituencies as UND without political experience. I am very proud of my academic credentials with some of the finest universities in the country. But those academic credentials at the president's level, in my mind, need to be meshed with the ability to lead complex organizations and engage the various constituencies, both of which require business and political skills."

Kennedy comes to UND from George Washington University where since 2012 he was the director of the Graduate School of Political Management and a professor.

As for political experience, Kennedy was elected as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives for three terms, first for Minnesota's second district and then for its sixth. He served on the financial services, transportation and agriculture committees during his tenure from 2001 to 2007 and was then appointed to the advisory committee on trade policy and negotiations, serving under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Before politics came business for Kennedy, who worked as the director of finance for Pillsbury and as a senior executive at Federated Department Stores, now known as Macy's.

A 'visionary leader'

Kennedy's background is varied but that had appeal to those responsible for hiring him.

Kathleen Neset, the chairwoman of the State Board of Higher Education, which made the decision to hire Kennedy in March, said he has the background, the credentials and the clout to take the university to the next level.

"Mark Kennedy elevates UND to another level," Neset said. "He brings to this a strong background in finance. I say that at any given time, the right individual is the correct person for that presidency, and today we need a strong leader with strong finance."

As the university's next leader, Kennedy said he hopes to have a collaborative environment where people can come together, share ideas and reach a consensus about what's best for the university.

"I want to reach out, not just to the broader UND community, but the broader state and have a conversation on that and have an agreement on what we're going to focus on and then drive progress toward those key goals," he said.

People who work with Kennedy describe him as a an energetic, optimistic and visionary leader. Lara Brown, who worked with Kennedy at George Washington University and is now taking over his position in the interim, said he is encouraging as a boss, as well as collaborative and engaging.

"I think part of why he was successful here at George Washington is because sometimes academia can kind of get lost in theory," Brown said. "And Mark is somebody who is much more interested in practically solving things and looking for ways to do things."

Tim Penny partnered with Kennedy to found the Economic Club of Minnesota, which provides a platform for leaders in business, government and public policy to present their ideas on how Minnesota can better position itself in the global economy.

Penny, who served as a Democratic congressman from 1983 to 1995, said he thinks Kennedy will be a great public spokesman who will be passionate about promoting the premier programs at UND and also be a good fundraiser.

Because of his background in politics, Penny said he believes Kennedy is well positioned to be a successful president at UND.

"College presidents, frankly, have to be, in a way, politicians," Penny said. "They have to be good with people, they have to be good on their feet, they have to juggle very busy schedules, they have to be media-savvy and they have to be passionate about what they're doing, all of which Mark does and does well."

Looking forward

During his first 90 days in office, Kennedy said his top priority will be simple: to listen.

His two overarching goals are to have about five metrics for what it means for UND to be the premier university in the region and roughly three areas where the school will really drive research. Kennedy said he might have ideas as to what those five and three things are, but he wants to get broader input and discussion as to what they should be from people around the state.

With budget cuts having taken place and more possibly on the way, it's important for the university to prioritize, specifically when it comes to the goals the university chooses, he said.

"A university like UND can't be world class at everything," he said. "But I think UND and the state will benefit by us picking a couple where we're truly going to be the best at that category."

To gather input, Kennedy is hosting two ways for people to get in touch—"Pancakes with the President" for the university community and "Coffee with Kennedy" for people in Grand Forks and around the state. The first Coffee with Kennedy is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday in the Grand Forks Herald Community Room.

With those get-togethers along with others, Kennedy said he will strive to be accessible and engaging in the Grand Forks community, much like he was as a congressman.

During a debate while running for reelection in Congress, Kennedy said he and his opponent were asked to say something positive about the other person. His opponent said Kennedy was everywhere when campaigning. If they came to a town, Kennedy was just there and he was likely coming back.

"I actually enjoy getting out and getting the input and advice and insight of people from around the region and around the community," he said. "And I intend to do that when I'm at UND."

Kennedy said he hopes to follow his first 90 days by doing strategic thinking, so when the university goes into the state's upcoming legislative session, he has the framework and the input of the broader UND community. By the end of his first year, he hopes to wrap up an agreement on a strategic direction for the university.

Throughout his tenure, Kennedy said he hopes to set UND up for success for years to come by working together with the university, the community and the state.

"We aren't going to necessarily always agree on every single item," Kennedy said. "But we're going to hopefully develop a rapport and an understanding that we each need to take the time to understand each other's point of view and work together toward doing what's best for the University of North Dakota."

Wade Rupard

Wade Rupard is a reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. Rupard is a 2014 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and is originally from Normal, Ill. 

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