UND President Mark Kennedy has been announced as the sole finalist for the University of Colorado’s open president position, potentially ending his tenure at UND after nearly three years.
While the process is not yet finalized, Kennedy told the Herald Wednesday that it would “highly unusual that it is not the final selection.”
“This is really a very positive reflection on the University of North Dakota because there’s no way I would have been given this opportunity had it not been for all the great things the team here, in collaboration with our community and state partners, have advanced,” he said.
Should he ultimately be appointed to the position, Kennedy will stay on at UND through June 15. He would be one of the shortest-serving presidents in university history should he leave.
Kennedy said he was headhunted, which means he was encouraged to apply for the position. He said the process has been going on for a couple months.
The current president at the University of Colorado, Bruce Benson, is retiring from the school after 11 years. Wednesday morning, the Board of Regents voted unanimously to make Kennedy the only finalist for the president’s position. The position also oversees four CU system campuses, including Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs, along with the Anschutz Medical School.
Late Wednesday morning, Kennedy issued a statement that said he is “sorry to leave UND.” Later, during a conference call with the Herald, he clarified, saying that “it would be presumptuous to say it’s a done deal until after this (two-week) period. I maybe should have put ‘we would be sorry to leave UND.’ ”
The Colorado system and Kennedy are now in a waiting period before any final decision can be made about the president’s position. Colorado law requires that a finalist’s name be public for 14 days before a candidate ultimately is appointed to the president’s position.
“It is highly unusual that it is not the final selection, but that option remains until the Regents vote again in two weeks,” he said. A date for that vote has not been set yet.
During the week of April 22, Kennedy and his wife, Debbie, will visit the four campuses in the system to meet with faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends. These events will include open forums.
In March, the search for a new president in Denver narrowed to 10 candidates, according to reports by the Daily Camera newspaper in Boulder. However, according to Colorado open-records laws, the finalists for the job were not named until Wednesday.
“Mark Kennedy is a proven leader with a diverse set of skills and experiences in higher education, government and business that will allow him to build on the considerable success CU has experienced in recent years and take the university to even greater heights,” Sue Sharkey, chair of the CU Board of Regents, said in a statement.
Kennedy said while he is in Colorado he will be using a portion of his allotted paid time off, so the stay will not be expensed to the university.
According to the University of Colorado salary database, the current president of the CU system makes $359,100 a year. Kennedy makes $365,000 a year in North Dakota.
North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott congratulated the Kennedys “as they embark on this exciting new chapter in their lives.” Hagerott added he is “very appreciative” of Kennedy’s work on UND’s five-year strategic plan, which Hagerott says is “already enhancing the university’s reputation as a model of innovation and future-facing education and research.”
“I thank President Kennedy for enhancing the overall quality of the university and for his leadership during historically challenging budget times,” Hagerott said. “I wish the Kennedys all the best in their new roles in Colorado.”
Don Morton, chair of the North Dakota Board of Higher Education, said Kennedy and “his leadership team have established a strategic foundation for accelerated success” over the long term at the UND.
“I fully appreciate the difficult decisions that had to be made in addressing recent major budget cuts,” he said.
Morton also praised Kennedy for his work with online curriculums and use of technology at the university.
“As a state, it is a big win for North Dakota when higher education leadership embraces technology disruption and then builds the curriculum to educate our future leaders. President Kennedy has positioned UND well for this challenge,” Morton said.
Kennedy’s time at UND has not been without criticism and controversy, including the cut of the women’s hockey team, the demolition of campus buildings and most recently his decision and then reversal regarding his chief of staff working remotely, off campus.
He notably has been publicly scorned by philanthropist Kris Engelstad McGarry, whose family donated the Ralph Engelstad Arena and has given millions of dollars to UND. She recently said the family will not donate directly to the university while Kennedy is president.
In February, Kennedy walked back a decision to allow Chief of Staff Angelique Foster to work remotely from Texas. Foster, who accompanied Kennedy from his previous post at George Washington University, was given a title change and a pay raise last fall, shortly before announcing she would be leaving UND. Foster was going to stay on as chief of staff and work remotely from Texas with her travel expenses paid for, but following public pressure, Kennedy changed that decision.
Wednesday, Kennedy discussed the controversy with the Daily Camera, the newspaper in Boulder.
"I fear that part of the reason that that article got as much attention as it did is some people couldn't understand how a young African-American woman from the South could be as qualified and worthy" to do the job as others, he told the Daily Camera. "I'm quite confident it is about more than remote working."
The Daily Camera posted that story online after the Herald spoke with Kennedy during a noon meeting via telephone. Later, the Herald asked for clarification. UND spokeswoman Meloney Linder said Kennedy was not available to speak further, but said Kennedy “understands there were many factors that people considered” about the Foster controversy.
Near the end of the day, Kennedy reached out to the Herald to further clarify his comments saying that North Dakota is a “warm and gracious” place. He apologized if his earlier comment offended anyone.
“I understand there were many factors,” he said. “I understand that an extra cost for reimbursement is not normal. I understand that we haven’t had as much experience with remote working but I want to just say that we do honestly believe that North Dakota is a welcoming and inclusive place.”
Kennedy said he also clarified his comments with the Daily Camera.
This is not the first time Kennedy has been in discussions for a position at another university.
In February 2018, Kennedy was announced as one of four finalists to be president at the University of Central Florida. Kennedy ultimately was not offered the position.
In February 2019, UND told the Herald that Kennedy, at that time, had no interest in jobs outside of the university. At that time, rumors circulated that Kennedy had applied to be the president of the University of Minnesota. Kennedy had previously told the Herald in December he did not apply for the position.
Kennedy said the idea of making a positive impact on approximately 67,000 students’ lives in Colorado was one reason he was drawn to the position. Additionally, the Colorado system does around $1 billion in research between its campuses, which was another attraction.
“Research is very important to me and, I believe, to the state and the nation as I have advocated for expanded investment in the state of North Dakota,” he said.
Kennedy said he is proud of the work the university has done to further research in the state and the region.
The University of Colorado ranks 13th in the nation for research schools. During Kennedy’s tenure at UND the school has jumped from 170th to 151st in research rankings, according to the National Science Foundation’s most recent report.
Kennedy said he is also proud of the university’s ability to boost its four-year graduation rate. In February 2019, UND announced significant growth in students’ four-year graduation rate, from 23 percent in 2008 to 36 percent in 2018. UND wanted to raise its four-year graduation rate to 34 percent by 2022, according to Kennedy’s strategic plan.
Finally, he said he is proud of the public-private partnerships the university has built during his time at UND, including a new steam plant. If other projects are approved by the Legislature and if money is raised for the new business school, Kennedy said the university could have $500 million in prospective construction over the next few years.
“It is going to be a completely different campus two, three years from now than it was when I arrived three years ago,” he said.
The campus has also taken another step forward embracing the Fighting Hawks nickname, Kennedy said, noting that a mascot and nickname change are among the hardest transitions a university can endure.
“We are another chapter in that book further than when I got here,” he said. “We are celebrating our heritage and embracing our present.”
Kennedy said if he could do one thing differently at UND, it would be to “never say never again.” Early on in his tenure as president, before knowing how severe the budget cuts would be, Kennedy said the university would only consider cutting sports once. That supposed single round of cuts became deeper than Kennedy predicted.