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Options vary for UND in potential president search

With UND President Mark Kennedy now well in the running for the top job at a major Florida university, it may be time for campus stakeholders to make contingency plans.

Kennedy was announced Friday as a finalist in a presidential search underway at the University of Central Florida, an Orlando-based institution with a total student count of more than 66,000. If Kennedy were to land the job there, he'd likely chalk up one of the shortest presidential tenures in UND history with about two years or less on campus. The national average for a college presidency was about 6.5 years in 2016, according to the American Council on Education.

Though the move would come quickly, the vacancy of the highest office of Twamley Hall isn't without recent precedent. But with the fast pace of the search at UCF—Kennedy was officially announced as a candidate Feb. 15 and the search committee hopes to make its final decision March 9—it is unclear how much time UND would have to secure a new head executive before a Kennedy departure.

Presidential searches can work in varying ways in the North Dakota University System, said system spokeswoman Billie Jo Lorius, and an average span of time to replace a president can run anywhere between three and eight months, depending on the case.

Some schools see their presidents leave relatively quickly. That was the situation for Valley City State University when former President Tisa Mason announced her resignation in November to accept the presidency of Fort Hays State University in Kansas. Mason, who started her new job in January, was replaced at VCSU by interim President Margaret Dahlberg, the university's vice president for academic affairs.

Not all schools make a quick turn to an interim leader, as others get ample notice before their president moves on. That's how it was at Mayville State University, where President Gary Hagen announced his July retirement at the start of the current academic year.

The search for a new president to follow Hagen, who served for more than 10 years, was then able to begin in November. The committee driving the hunt announced Thursday a set of semifinalist candidates. Committee members hope to have their final choices selected in time for the March meeting of the State Board of Higher Education, the governing body of the NDUS that has the last word on presidential searches.

Of course, it's not yet clear whether Kennedy can start exchanging his parka for some shades, and Lorius said the system wasn't going to speculate as to how his interview process would end. But, if the head Hawk does fly south, the search for a replacement would start with the SBHE. The system typically first obtains the help an executive search firm that helps attract and vet candidates before they reach university-level committees made up of campus stakeholders and an SBHE representative. If Kennedy were to leave before the replacement search ran its course, the board would have to appoint an interim president.

UND has had three of these in the past—the most recent being former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, who bridged a six-month gap between Kennedy and President Robert Kelley. Lorius couldn't say what the chance of seeing another interim would be, and time will tell if that's even necessary. For now, she said, "we wish the best for our presidents, but also for the University of North Dakota," whatever that may hold.

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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