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OUR OPINION: Kennedy's humor, clarity are welcome

Before Ronald Reagan became governor and then again before he became president, people said, "An actor? For the top job in politics?"

The rest is history. Because show business, it turned out, was the perfect background for a politician, given that modern politicians are always "on."

And learning to be comfortable on stage and in front of cameras now is recognized as being great training for elected office.

Before Mark Kennedy came to Grand Forks, some in North Dakota wondered, "A congressman? For the UND presidency?"

Some may still wonder about it. Only last week, columnist Mike McFeely of The Forum newspaper in Fargo criticized the fact Kennedy doesn't have a PhD.

But as Herald readers will see from Kennedy's interview on this page, experience in politics could turn out be a very good background for a university president. That's because Kennedy proves skillful in the vital art of tact. He communicates thoughtful messages on hot-button issues (such as the rivalry between UND and North Dakota State University), but does so in a way that informs or challenges the two sides rather than offending them.

That's hard to do, especially on complicated, partisan subjects that a person has only recently been brought up to speed on. But Kennedy makes it look easy.

Clearly, he has had long experience and likely honed this skill while running for and holding public office. It'll be an exceptionally valuable trait as Kennedy meets the many stakeholders whom a UND president must get to know.

Now, here's hoping he also keeps exercising the other skill (which he's also very good at) that'll take him a long way in North Dakota life: plain speaking.

Yes, it's a tremendous challenge to be both tactful and plain-spoken. But as the saying goes, that's why they're paying Kennedy the big bucks.

For that's what North Dakotans expect of their UND president. They want a leader who avoids academic jargon—one reason why more college-president search committees are turning to CEOs and elected officials, rather than PhD's—and communicates strong messages in plain English, but does so in ways that are respectful rather than boastful, insulting or snide.

A sense of humor helps, too. (Especially self-deprecating humor).

No, that's not an impossible task. Ed Schafer got it right; UND's former interim president didn't pull punches or mince words, but also didn't needlessly offend. Farther back, former president Tom Clifford still is remembered for the warmth and good humor of his leadership style. Nor were there worries on the plain-speaking side; Clifford's background as a Marine officer made sure of that.

Kennedy has great potential, too. He's certainly got the right role models in Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, thoughtful, witty and powerful communicators all. Here's hoping Kennedy lets their spirits guide him through.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald