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UND on the road: Kennedy logs almost 100 travel days since taking office; overall expense close to $30,000

UND President Mark Kennedy is a man on the move.

In his first year in office, Kennedy has balanced an active travel schedule with his campus duties and appearances at university events. A breakdown of Kennedy’s total travel record between July 1, 2016 and July 17 of this year has 54 ventures listed beyond Grand Forks, ranging from “Coffee with Kennedy” road trips along ND Highways 81 and 18 to a day-long diversion to Mexico City while on a separately funded trip to that country.

Nine of those trips, many of which were only a day long, were marked as personal leave with no cost to the university. Including partial days and time spent getting to airports and the like, the UND-related road schedule logged Kennedy for parts of almost 100 travel days. The total expenses for the given travel period came close to $30,000.

Kennedy himself doesn’t think he’s particularly well-traveled yet.

“I presume the storyline for this year is that I traveled relatively little,” he told a Herald reporter, “because as we move into more a campaign mode, I’m going to need to be doing more traveling, not less traveling.”

In addition to meet-ups with donors and attending conferences, Kennedy sees his travel schedule as a way to give UND a seat at the table in meetings of the upper ranks of higher ed. Due to recent budget cuts, he says, UND has already withdrawn from one of the two academic associations it had previously been a member of. That means he’s now attending roughly half the number of academic events that may have historically been scheduled for a UND president, he says. One way or another, “you’re going to need to continue to be at the large gatherings where the universities are,” Kennedy said. One of his earliest outside engagements took him to a Harvard seminar for new presidents in Cambridge, Mass., a training conference for new university leaders that cost about $616. Kennedy also mingled with other university leaders at two meetings of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, including the association’s annual meeting last fall and its Council of Presidents summer meeting in late June. Those meetings cost about $1,490 and $1,030, respectively.

Maybe the most notable meeting with an outside leader came when Kennedy had dinner with a justice of the Mexican Supreme Court. Kennedy met with the justice to invite him to UND to speak in the university’s fall Fode Lecture series at the university’s law school. The meeting with the justice cost about $300 -- Kennedy was already in Mexico on a trip funded by Tecnologico de Monterrey, a Mexican university that paid to bring him in to give a presentation about his recent book, a business-related text titled “Shapeholders.”

Outgoing university spokesman Peter Johnson said the meeting with the justice was promising but declined to give their name until more details could be finalized about a possible visit.

The more purely academic travel schedule runs parallel to trips conducted for fundraising and athletics purposes. Successful runs for the UND basketball and hockey teams took Kennedy to post-season games from Salt Lake City to Fargo to watch the Fighting Hawks play for tournament titles. The Salt Lake City trip marked a landmark for UND as the Hawks appeared in the school’s first-ever trip to the NCAA March Madness tournament. It cost about $970 all together.

Aside from actual sporting events, Kennedy also traveled to discuss the administrative side of collegiate athletics at multi-day meetings of university presidents from the Big Sky Conference and Missouri Valley Football Conference. Those meetings took place in Flagstaff, Ariz., and St. Louis, Mo., respectively, and cost about $920 and $1,100.

Johnson wrote in an email that Kennedy’s attendance at those meetings “contributed greatly to his ability to organize the realignment of our athletics conferences in what had to be near record time.”

Johnson also cites the fundraising travel schedule as a major piece of the university’s strategy in that area. According to him, almost 80 percent of matching gifts donated to UND in the second round of the North Dakota Challenge Fund grant program came from out-of-state. An annotated breakdown of Kennedy’s travel schedule provided by the president’s office showed a total of seven trips conducted on the behalf of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation. Those trips carried Kennedy as near as a foundation-funded trip to Detroit Lakes, Minn., and as far as California to meet with major donors. The foundation-related travel schedule also includes multi-day meetings at the UND Foundation and the university’s Center for Innovation. Travel and lodging for those longer, strategic meetings cost about $1,500 apiece.

From what he’s seen over multiple presidential administrations, Johnson says Kennedy’s schedule over the past year is “not untypical.”

Johnson points out that many of Kennedy’s travel days are over weekends. Some days off-campus are chalked up to missed connections due to air carrier overbookings, he says, and others are really only half-days with at least some time spent on university grounds.

“I think it is also important to note that there is no real down time with this president,” Johnson said. When the president isn't physically on campus, the UND provost serves in some ways as an administrative stand-in, a feature Johnson says has been in place for some time and mirrors common practice across the higher education landscape.

Past UND presidents have also maintained busy travel itineraries that take them beyond UND, especially at times when fundraising is a major focus. Johnson notes that the final two years of former UND President Charles Kupchella, who left the university in 2008, was an especially intense period of travel as Kupchella laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the North Dakota Spirit Capital Campaign, a fundraising push with a goal of $300 million. That campaign eventually raised $324 million and was the largest-ever funding drive in state history.

Though UND has yet to officially launch a new gifting venture with such lofty sights, campus leaders are driving to raise more money as part of the university’s five-year strategic plan.

DeAnna Carlson Zink, CEO of UND’s alumni outreach efforts, described Kennedy as being an important member of the university fundraising team throughout his first year on campus. Traditionally, she said, at both UND and in higher education as a whole, the university president acts as a “closer” for some of the major gifts a university might receive.

“Our biggest donors, if you will, really want to have face-to-face interaction with the leader of the University of North Dakota,” Carlson Zink said “For his first year, we spent a lot of time getting him out in front of donors, letting them meet him, having alumni events.”

She said her office closed out the 2016 fiscal year with $39.4 million in gifts, topping the previous year’s haul of $33.4 million. All in all, she said, the association had a “great year” and is anticipating a campaign drive at some point in the future. Carlson Zink predicted, as Kennedy did, that the president’s foundation-related travel would likely increase in years to come.

While it looks to raise more money to invest in various strategic areas, the university also is attempting to increase its own sources of revenue in response to major cuts in state appropriated dollars passed down by the North Dakota Legislature over the past two years.

Given the purposes served by the presidential travel schedule, Kennedy sees his time on the road as tied to service to UND in a time of change for the campus.

“The functions that a president is perhaps least able to delegate involve travel,” he wrote in an email. “Given competing demands, this requires a constantly evolving balancing of where time is optimally spent.”

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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