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UND's President Mark Kennedy talks collaboration with NDSU, role of liberal arts

UND president Mark Kennedy answers questions during a recent meeting with the Grand Forks Herald Editorial Board. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Earlier this month, UND President Mark Kennedy sat down for an interview with the Herald's editorial board. What follows is a transcript of that interview, edited for clarity and length.

This is the second of two parts. Part 1 of the interview was presented on this page July 17.

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Q. Some have argued North Dakota State University is the leading liberal arts institution in North Dakota today, and that UND trains professionals—doctors and lawyers.

Tell us your thoughts about UND being the flagship university in North Dakota as well as the role of the liberal arts at the universities. What is the importance of that?

If the big debate we're having on liberal arts is whether NDSU is the main liberal arts university, the good news is that I don't think it hurts NDSU to have injected liberal arts requirements into its curriculum. Liberal arts classes were something I found valuable in my education, and I'm happy to see other universities recognizing that value, too.

Part of the reason there could be talk about this is that the North Dakota University System has common-core requirements for degrees. The intent is to make it easy to transfer from one to the other. And with that, NDSU has the same core curriculum for all majors as we do.

Alternatively, if that weren't the case, you might think we'd have a heavier liberal arts injection than they do. I'm not going to fight about that because I think the uniform requirements are a sound thing for the system.

Let me just say, I don't think anyone begrudges the success of NDSU. We need a strong NDSU—a strong land-grant university. To the extent that NDSU views its mission to be UND, that's a duplication we do not need. To the extent that we view ourselves to be NDSU, that's a duplication we do not need.

We are very proud of the professional programs we have in medicine and law, among other fields, and they should be very proud of the very strong heritage they have in agriculture and other disciplines. For its part, agriculture is going to become more important in the future as we have to feed the world, and there is so much technology involved—and there are UAS applications for technology.

Both of us have very substantive missions that are of great and growing need and are valuable.

I don't think anyone's trying to hold NDSU down.

There perhaps hasn't been enough of a conversation as to what is a system. Everybody says they want us to work as a system. But a system is not 11 flavors of vanilla. There is sort of a two-year flavor and a smaller four-year flavor. And there should be an NDSU flavor and a separate UND flavor.

Because if we both are the same flavors, that's not additive to the state of North Dakota.

We both ought to be premier at what we do—premier flagship and premier land grant. I don't think it's useful to have either of us be anything other than admiring of the successes of the other in those categories.

Q. Is there more room for collaboration?

There absolutely is. The ripest area for collaboration is in the tech area that you see the chancellor pushing—on unmanned aerial systems, on cyber and on big data. We clearly believe we have the national lead on unmanned and want to more firmly grasp that.

But even with that, it makes no sense for us to replicate anything on the agriculture side, which has huge unmanned applications for NDSU.

Cyber—you know, NDSU may have unique capabilities on that. But we would like to focus on cyber specifically as it relates to unmanned, because there is a huge amount of cyber associated with that field.

We are more than willing to be collaborative. One of the first things I did when I came here was go to Fargo and meet with NDSU President Dean Bresciani. Again, we are more than open to collaborating.

Remember, within the context of North Dakota, UND and NDSU are big. But in the context of the world of global competition and who is going to drive technologies forward, in aggregate, we are not big.

If we are not together, we have no chance.

Q. UND seems willing to be collaborative. Is NDSU?

We're going to have plenty of controversial things to debate within UND without me stepping into further conversation, other than to indicate a firm willingness to be collaborative with NDSU.

We want to be supportive in every way possible, as long as it's on a path of collaborating on areas where we legitimately have shared expertise.

But we should really focus on our own specific priorities otherwise.

Q. Will there be benchmarks, as far as elevating UND and your vision for UND over the next few years?

There will be benchmarks—but I want to have the University Senate and us together in this collaborative process. Is the premier flagship the biggest, or does it have the highest graduation rate? Is the benchmark the highest number of programs or the most significant investment in research?

What I hope to do is get a steering committee that would include representatives from the University Senate, the Alumni Association and the administration to come up with a framework that will say, "Let's suggest X number of metrics, have them be debated within the broader group and then have them select the ones that will work best.

"Let's come up with a number of initiatives, debate them and try to figure out which they think is most important."

I'm hoping to give the bigger, broader strategic-planning group options to choose from. If I had my choice, I would pick some; but I want to have the debate.

The other thing regarding liberal arts: You've heard me talk about Theodore Roosevelt saying the romance of his life began in North Dakota. He came here after his mother and wife died on the same day. He talked about walking the land, getting your hands dirty, getting the big picture and getting experiential learning.

Now, is that liberal arts or is it not? Some people say it's not, but I think experiential learning is stretching your mind. Is it practical, or is it liberal arts?

In any event, it's a very important part of educating today's generation that grew up with video games—they have to touch it, have to feel it, have to see it move. So, that's another thing I'd like to put forth into debate as to how we can adapt that into our curriculum.

Q. How is the culture at UND?

People love this place. There hadn't been a lot of change, pre-Ed Schafer, perhaps. I sense that Schafer began to change things. And every time there is change, there is friction, there is conflict and concern.

Nobody likes change.

But there is a digitization wave sweeping over education, and you either ride that wave or get washed over by it.

If we are to ride that wave, there will be more change.

The culture is a lot of seasoned employees' love for the university and comfort with what they are doing. We need to build on the first two and get them more comfortable with change, because change is needed if you're going to be the one that everybody emulates.

Think about the pioneering role UND has played. Somebody told me that the first time the term "North Dakota" was used at all was for the University of North Dakota, several years before statehood.

The other thing I marvel about is that six of our first eight students were female. I'm not sure any other major research university of our kind was started majority female. The Harvards and Yales of the world were male only. It was quite some time before they were co-ed.

So, we really do have a pioneering spirit of reaching out into new territories and finding new ways of doing things.

Our online program is pretty well-advanced, and it's part of that idea of reaching out and embracing new technologies. So, I think there are a lot of very positive things here that the strategic planning focus can say, "Yes, we ought to be pushing that farther and energizing our pioneering spirit even further."

Q. One of the things you made a point of in earlier appearances was the world-class events you had put together at George Washington University and how that might be grafted on or rooted into UND. Can you expand on that a bit?

What we're focusing on here is what we're calling the Eye of the Hawk Lecture Series. You might have heard we had a new name and logo; I know that hasn't really captured much attention at all. (Laughter).

The idea with this lecture series is that in King Arthur mythology, Merlin changed young Arthur into a hawk, so Arthur could fly up above and see that all those invisible lines they'd been fighting wars over endlessly, really weren't there. So, why are we fighting about all of these things?

In many ways, the role of a liberal arts institution like UND is to stretch people's thinking, have them start looking at things in a different way.

To that end, we've created a series of lectures. Ultimately, I'd like to have one for each school, and each school would bring in somebody in that field of study, to talk about whatever the key issue is in that field.

Our hope is to have several of these. In a perfect world, we'd have one for each school every year. But for us to have that many in just the first year is going to be hard.

And it will all be under this theme of stretching people's minds by bringing in different speakers with different points of view.

As an institution, UND plays a teaching role, a research role, a service role and an engaged-member-of-the-community role. I see this as a way to do all of those.

Q. Are you thinking about alumni as the speakers? National figures? Global figures?

I want to brainstorm with the deans. There are a lot of things I could do as Mark, but I really am trying to be collaborative. So, I'm saying to the deans, what are the burning issues in your field? And who might be the best person to come talk about those?

For example, I've talked about this with Margaret Williams, the dean of the College of Business and Public Administration. My questions are, who do you want to bring in? Should it be a major figure from the banking industry? Someone from the Federal Reserve? A regulator, maybe, or one of the critics of the Fed?

In fact, there are any number of people who could be brought in. And that's true in all of these fields.

Also, because of my previous work history, there are a lot of international figures whom I know from around the world. And I'm considering, if I can fit it into my schedule—I don't know if I can—teaching a class on why and how America must lead. That would also give me a way to slide in international guest speakers from around the world.

Understand, I've given you my first priorities, which are strategy, a master campus plan and identifying what makes us the premier flagship/chief opportunity engine (that) drives research. So this bringing in of speakers is fourth on the list, not first.

Q. There is a certain level of anger and frustration at UND, due mostly to budget cuts, the nickname controversy and a perceived lack of communication. First, do you agree with that, and second, what can you do to help remedy it?

I think the university community and a big, broad swath of the state and UND alumni don't want to talk about the name and logo anymore. There is a segment that does, but this is the NCAA's issue and not ours.

Why it's held on so long is because we don't like to be told what to do by somebody else. It's frustrating for everybody—and particularly here, where there is this pioneering spirit.

So, I don't expect the name to be a major challenge, and I think the overwhelming number of people want to move on.

There will always be accusations there is not much collaboration. I don't know how much collaboration there was before. I already am getting a reputation for being everywhere. I am planning on being out there and engaging. I am intending to follow through on being highly collaborative.

I could set up a strategic planning committee separate from the University Senate, but I have chosen not to do that. That's an example of how I am planning to be highly collaborative.

And as for the budget cuts, the only way I have found to deal effectively with the angst that comes with cuts is to A) recognize they need to be done, B) set priorities and C) do them quickly.

Beyond that, the only thing you can do is set a bigger, brighter future vision for the institution and the people involved with it. And there is a bigger, brighter future vision.

So, I am going to call all those who are preoccupied by whatever cuts we have made or need to make and ask them to also be focusing their energies on the positive things that can happen if we all join together and burnish the star of this university.