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Board member rejects Kennedy decisions on chief of staff controversy

A member of the State Board of Higher Education came out against a decision made by UND President Mark Kennedy to keep his chief of staff on board from a remote location and questioned whether Kennedy's action violated board policy.

"I reject the notion that the chief of staff position can be properly performed remotely for any extended arrangement," board member Dan Traynor said. "A chief with no staff is no chief of staff."

Earlier this month, the university announced in its University Letter blog that Angelique Foster would be staying on as chief of staff. However, she would be doing that work remotely from Texas while receiving a $114,000 annual salary and having up to $25,000 worth of travel expenses paid for each year.

Traynor said after recent objections were made by him and North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott, the university changed course.

Kennedy said Monday that Foster will be on campus through April and then will stay on for up to six months after that. Meloney Linder, vice president of marketing and communications at UND, said Tuesday Foster will not be traveling during her remote work.

Traynor said he does not favor starting this arrangement in April or at any time.

Multiple board members said while do they have concerns with the situation, they wondered whether it was the board's place to become involved with campus issues.

"We are a governing board. We don't have the expertise or the time to get involved in all the different campus issues, and every campus has them," board chair Don Morton said.

Additionally, Traynor said he rejects the notion that a university with a medical school, a law school and Ph.D.s available in business and management "cannot find one person with the capability and qualifications of a chief of staff."

"It is improper to take this action at this time when we have asked North Dakota's faculty and staff across our state and our campuses to take one for the team and to suffer through no pay raise or an effective reduction in benefits for the past two years," Traynor said.

"If UND has an extra $55,000 laying around, I prefer that you put it toward hiring some needed faculty at the law school or other places around campus."

Following the meeting, Kennedy said he and the university heard the “outcry” about the situation and responded.

Kennedy said the school “didn’t hear any fuss” when the salaries of flight instructors were raised because they were under competitive pressure or when the school bumped up the salaries of university police officers when they were being recruited by the city and county. Kennedy said there are changes and promotions throughout a public institution all the time.

“I find it highly troubling that out of all those positions that somebody decided to go after the position of the chief of staff,” he said. “It is not a good reflection on who it is we decide to single out.”

Traynor said the issue occurring during the legislative session is also harmful, "when any misstep is criticized and amplified."

He also said he believes the action taken by Kennedy and executive staff was a violation of State Board policy, which provides that presidents are to ensure that the assets of the institution are continually directed toward maintaining the quality of teaching, research and service at the school.

"We have three constituencies that we report to. We report to students, taxpayers, and we report to our employees at our campuses, the faculty and staff. None of them were benefited by this decision," he said. "I think it was imprudent and it should not go forward in any respect."

Birgit Pruess, faculty adviser for the board, said she feels similarly to Traynor and noted that the general population is upset as well as many faculty members at UND.

Board member Kathy Neset said she struggles with the merits of the situation but wonders whether the board should be weighing in on this because it is a campus issue.

"We hire and fire our campus presidents and our CEO, our chancellor, but this is business of their responsibility," she said.

Hagerott told the board he will continue to work with Kennedy on the topic.

UND proposals

The board gave UND approval to up the size and scope of the Chester Fritz Library remodel.

The proposal increases spending authorization and the scope of the first phase of the renovation from $7 million to $11.65 million.

During last week's Budget and Finance Committee meeting, Rick Tonder, director of facilities planning for the University System, said that when UND started the renovation they discovered there is additional deferred maintenance work that was not included in the original scope of the project.

The increase would be supported by gift funds available within UND, local funds and extraordinary repair funds to cover the expanded project, including additional deferred maintenance, safety and IT upgrades.

The proposal passed unanimously.

The board also approved a revised UND proposal for an $80 million capital project meant to address deferred maintenance.

The proposal passed 8-0.

The project would be funded with the North Dakota Building Authority bonds, which would be paid back with institutional operating funds. The debt service is estimated to be around $5.2 million a year for 25 years.

The project would focus on specific core academic buildings including Merrifield Hall and Twamley Hall.

Nick Hacker, board vice chair, said the problem is "truly for catch-up" and noted that UND has been working on ways to deal with deferred maintenance for years.

The matter would also have to be approved by the Legislature.

UND submitted a similar proposal at the end of 2018, but the bond would have been repaid with money from tuition increases. That proposal was rejected.

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook has been covering higher education at the Grand Forks Herald since May 2018. She previously served as the multimedia editor and cops, courts and health reporter at the Dickinson Press from January 2016 to May 2018.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

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