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UND’s Mark Kennedy a finalist for Central Florida job

UND President Mark Kennedy interviews for the job of president of University of Central Florida in Orlando on Friday. Photo by Michael McNarney for the Herald.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- UND President Mark Kennedy was named one of four finalists to be the next president of the University of Central Florida here after an hour of public questioning by a 15-person search committee.

Kennedy was one of eight semifinalists being considered at UCF, a school with more than 66,000 students -- compared to 14,400 at UND.

“He has a diversity of experience,” David Walsh, chairman of the search committee and a UCF trustee, said. “Some academic, some business, some government. He becomes an interesting alternative.”

Kennedy and the other three finalists will be brought back to Orlando for two days starting on March 1. The finalists will all have individual and group meetings on and off campus, private dinners in the community and will make public presentations.

The university’s board of trustees will vote on a new president on March 9.  

Kennedy spoke of how he built trust on campus at UND by spending time outside of Twamley Hall and hosting cookouts at his home for faculty, pancake breakfasts for students and coffee gatherings for Grand Forks residents.

“That’s earned me the trust and respect of everyone back at UND, and I would start out the same way here at UCF,” Kennedy said.

Not everyone was initially convinced.

“Personally, I was not super impressed,” committee member and UCF student Cristina Barreto said, adding later that her major concern was that his one-on-one outreach was at such a small school.

“He was able to do pancakes with the president,” she said. “It’s such a different dynamic here. It’s not a small city in North Dakota. It’s Orlando.” But ultimately Barreto -- and the other committee members -- voted to approve Kennedy.

Kennedy will vie with three other finalists to replace John Hitt, president for 26 years. The other finalists are Suresh Garimella, executive vice president at Purdue University; UCF Provost and Executive Vice President Dale Whittaker; and Matthew Wilson, president of the University of Akron.

Kennedy began the interview prepared to read an opening statement. Walsh gently asked him to keep it “very brief.” Kennedy also brought a copy of his book and closed out his interview by handing out to each committee member a pocket card containing a copy of UND’s strategic plan and core values. Kennedy noted during his interview that UCF’s strategic plan ran 75 pages.  

Kennedy was questioned bluntly by Michael Manglardi, representing the UCF Foundation, about his short time -- eight years -- in higher education compared to other candidates and other university presidents.

“If you want two provosts, look for someone with a traditional academic background. If you want somebody who does what presidents do, which is raise money, build partnerships, worry about campuses, and communicate and attract students and make sure the marketing is focused on students and not on the chamber of commerce, then hire a president,” Kennedy said. “Your chances of achieving your goals, in my view, are much higher with somebody with my background sitting in this chair.”

Biology Professor Linda Walters wondered aloud what kind of counteroffer UND would make to Kennedy to keep him. At UCF, the outgoing president’s pay package in 2016-2017 was $1.27 million. At UND, Kennedy is paid $365,000.

There was laughter in the room. A pause. More laughter. “That’s an answer I cannot answer,” Kennedy replied.