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A year of change: UND president Mark Kennedy the Herald's 2017 Person of the Year

UND president Mark Kennedy, The Grand Forks Herald's person of the year for 2017, has been described as the "consummate professional" by Kathleen Neset who was the chair of the State Board of Higher Education when Kennedy was hired.photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The first sign of trouble came not long after Mark Kennedy took office.

The UND president marked his first day on the job July 1, 2016, assuming the top office at Twamley Hall after a monthslong search carried out by the State Board of Higher Education. His predecessor, interim UND President Ed Schafer, had manned the helm for the first of what would be two rounds of steep budget cuts to hit the flagship university and the North Dakota University System as a whole.

The second level of cuts would fall squarely on Kennedy, who, for his role at the center of one of Grand Forks' largest institutions in what turned out to be formative times, has been named the Herald's Person of the Year for 2017.

Before Kennedy's first semester at UND began in fall 2016, the budget issue once again reared its head with a 2.5 percent allotment sliced in August. The president is wry when he talks about his introduction to what came to be a defining feature of his first year in office.

"Was it disclosed about the budget cuts in the interviews?" he asks, speaking to the process that brought him to campus. "I think the budget was a bit of a surprise if you picked up on the narrative of, 'Oh it's good we have that done in the first half of 2016, now we don't have to do that for the rest of the year.'"

The cuts to UND were part of a systemwide contraction led by downturns in the North Dakota economic forecast. As of now, the state general fund appropriation for the entire NDUS is down about $212 million for the 2017-19 biennium. That's a reduction of about 25 percent from the adjusted total granted to the system for the previous two-year budget period.

In his first year on the job, Kennedy was tasked with absorbing his share of that cut, a reduction that amounted to a 12 percent hit across the UND campus.

With the budget cut process working in the background, Kennedy also took steps to advance the core items on his agenda. For one, he oversaw the campus embrace of the Fighting Hawks nickname and logo, the latter of which was released shortly before his own arrival to Grand Forks. The physical campus also got an overhaul when Kennedy advanced a master facilities plan sketched out before his arrival. That plan, which focused in part on saving costs by reducing the structural footprint of campus, led to the summer demolition of almost a dozen UND buildings. For down the road, Kennedy has identified renovations and facility additions to bolster the campus as the physical brand of the university.

Perhaps more than any of those other points, Kennedy marks the completion of a five-year strategic plan, a document with broad overarching goals that address nearly all areas of the university, as a major item of his first year at UND. That document is now being used as the foundation to guide ongoing campus initiatives and will inform the creation of a new master plan for university facilities.

UND professor Nancy Vogeltanz-Holm, who serves as the chair of the University Senate at the school, said the institution has been in a state of change since Schafer's interim presidency.

"I believe everyone at UND will agree that President Kennedy has accelerated this change, guided by a set of goals and values that UND's students, staff, and faculty have helped shape," Vogeltanz-Holm wrote in an email. "From my perspective, the strategic changes that are occurring are positive, forward-thinking, and essential for our state's long-term stability and growth."

Her fellow UND professor Dana Harsell led the University Senate when Kennedy first came to office. Harsell notes the newest president "came to UND at a turbulent time."

"He was asked to take the position and hit the ground running, which he did," Harsell said. "From a University Senate perspective, he was really open to counsel. ... He wanted different perspectives, point of view. That didn't necessary mean that he would take your recommendation, but he'd certainly consider it."

'Deserve Victory'

In all, it was a big year for a man who had never before served as a university president. Kennedy's tenure at UND comes as one of the more prominent installments in a varied career. A native of Pequot Lakes, Minn., Kennedy himself is an alumnus of St. John's University. His work has been mainly set in the business world, where he served as a senior vice president and treasurer of Macy's before holding executive positions at other corporations.

He went on to parlay that experience into the public sector when he won a seat in Congress in 2001. Kennedy served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before running for Senate in a 2006 race he lost to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

Kennedy then returned to the private sector for a turn before making his pivot to higher education when he became an "executive in residence" at the business school of Johns Hopkins University. His final stop before UND was at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he was a professor and director of the Graduate School of Political Management.

Now, as he presides over the Grand Forks campus from the fifth floor of Twamley, Kennedy says he tries to spend as little time as possible actually in his office. But the personal touches are still there, including memorabilia from past U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and North Dakota favorite Theodore Roosevelt.

Kennedy also keeps a poster of war-time British Prime Minister Winston Churchill overlooking his desk with the slogan "Deserve Victory." Kennedy says the piece is a keepsake from his campaigning days in Congress.

The internal campaign at UND didn't unfold without its own losses. Last winter saw the exit of Bruce Gjovig, the founder and executive of the entrepreneur-minded UND Center for Innovation. Though Gjovig announced his retirement early on, he said soon after that he had been pushed out from the university after more than 30 years. He said his early departure came at the behest of school leaders, including Kennedy. When the president was asked about Gjovig's claims, Kennedy would only say Gjovig retired.

Another major exit began this fall with the retirement announcement of UND Athletic Director Brian Faison. Some time before Faison's announcement, Kennedy hired a consulting firm to review top officials in the Athletics Department. The final recommendations made by the consultants were never conveyed in writing.

Faison officially announced his retirement in October. He left his post Dec. 31 and will stay on as a special adviser through June 30.

Capturing the moment

Kathleen Neset was the chair of the SBHE when the board hired Kennedy, who she described as "the consummate professional."

Neset, who no longer is board chair but still is a voting member, believes that status has maintained through the budgetary churn, bruising as it sometimes was.

"He's been what we needed at the time," Neset said. "At different times at a university's life, in a campus life, they need different kinds of leaders. In this particular time at UND, knowing the financial woes we were going through, as a state, as higher education, we needed a strong business leader, and that's where he captured the moment, so to speak."

That business leadership wasn't without its downsides. Neset acknowledges that it was "unfortunate that he had to make such decisions that impacted programs" in the course of adapting to the budget cuts.

Those impacts rippled across campus at various points of the school year, particularly the past spring semester. Longtime professors and staff members took buyouts or structured retirements when offered by the university. Some of those employees, many of whom had spent decades at UND, decried what they saw as an institution increasingly run by business principles. Some students carried a short-lived opposition against the cuts, issuing a petition labeling Kennedy "unqualified and unfit" to run UND.

Later in the semester, public opinion flared again after Kennedy moved to cut the UND women's hockey team—a program that had produced several Olympians, including Grand Forks locals Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux. That particular cut resonated across the women's hockey world, drawing comment from as far away as the offices of the German Hockey Federation.

Kennedy acknowledges the high levels of public feedback brought to his desk when the team was eliminated, though he stands by his ruling as he recollects being at a low-attended playoff game where UND faced off against Ohio State University.

"(The attendance), my memory serves me, was less than 300, at a playoff game with a Big 10 school," Kennedy said when discussing his move to cut the team. "It's hard, but we needed something that was of scale. No decision was easy, but that was a difficult decision."

Good steward

Women's hockey wasn't the only athletics program to be cut in the budget scuffle. Kennedy had instructed the athletics department to pull $1.3 million from its budgets to meet campuswide reductions. By the time the dust cleared, athletics had cut $2.9 million by eliminating the women's hockey team, as well as both men's and women's swimming and diving. Those teams now join the men's golf and baseball programs cut in spring 2016 in the previous round of budget contractions.

Kennedy tried unsuccessfully to resolve the athletics question early on. After a 2016 Intercollegiate Athletics Committee review ended in recommendation to keep all remaining UND sports programs, Kennedy said the campus had seen the last of team cuts.

"I have made it clear this is a once-in-a-Kennedy-tenure opportunity to review sports sponsorship," he said in October of that year. "It's a closed conversation as far as I'm concerned."

Looking back, Kennedy says he never would have made that statement had he known how deep the ensuing budget cuts were destined to be. In fact, he says that declaration is the one thing he would change about his first year in office if he had the power to do so.

Once the scope of the reductions took shape, Kennedy believes their blow was softened, or at least mitigated, by increased communication from university leaders to both the campus and the wider community.

Pete Haga, who works as the community liaison in the office of Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown, identified Kennedy's communication skills as one of his strongest traits. That applies to riding out the budget cuts while speaking to the future of the university, Haga said.

"I don't think I'm capable, or at least involved or close enough, to comment on how he's done navigating it," Haga said of the budget cuts. "But from the outside looking in, we can just tell how he's trying to do that—and it looks like he's being proactive and saying why he makes decisions."

Mayor Brown echoed that sentiment. Though he said Kennedy has had to make difficult choices from the start of his tenure, Brown appreciated that he acted decisively with "no hesitation" on the campus that is tied irrevocably to the city of Grand Forks.

"I think we have a good steward for our university," Brown said.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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