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UND PRESIDENTIAL SEARCH: Still waiting

North Dakota's Board of Higher Education offered the UND presidency to University of Wyoming Health Sciences Dean Robert O. Kelley on Monday, but Kelley said he needs a few days to consider the offer.

North Dakota's Board of Higher Education offered the UND presidency to University of Wyoming Health Sciences Dean Robert O. Kelley on Monday, but Kelley said he needs a few days to consider the offer.

Kelley decided to delay accepting the UND job before coming to campus, he said, and conveyed that decision to North Dakota University System Chancellor William Goetz during dinner Sunday night.

Kelley said the delay was not prompted by public discontent this past week over a search committee's decision to forward only his name for the presidency, despite being tasked with recommending three finalists.

"The integrity of the process has given me no pause," he said.

But criticism of the search process was one topic of discussion during a half-hour private meeting between Kelley and Goetz just before the board publicly offered Kelley the job, Goetz said.

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That meeting began after the adjournment of a closed session during which state board members decided to offer Kelley the job. Audience members were called back into the meeting room after the closed session ended and state board members were milling back and forth between the meeting room and a back hallway during Goetz and Kelley's half-hour talk.

Kelley declined to provide details about that meeting during a press conference after the job offer was announced, describing it as "highly privileged."

Kelley will spend the day today meeting with people on campus and in Grand Forks, Goetz said, and will phone him from Wyoming on Wednesday to say whether he's accepting the position.

Kelley said Monday he needs to spend more time getting a feel for the campus and learning if coming here would be the right commitment, saying he's "not prone to snap decisions."

If he accepts the job, Kelley will be paid $300,000 annually and have a three-year contract, Goetz said.

Competing ideals

The search committee decided to name Kelley its sole finalist after he was the only candidate to win support from three-quarters of committee members, a threshold they had earlier settled on for candidates going forward.

That decision was immediately controversial, prompting one group to try to draft William Ruud, a UND alumnus and president of Shippensburg (Pa.) University, into the race.

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Another group, led by UND athletics supporters, gathered about 75 signatures asking the state board to interview all three candidates who were supported by a simple majority of the search committee.

That would have brought UND aerospace dean and former UND football player Bruce Smith back into the race, along with University of Florida Nursing Dean Kathleen Long.

Rich Becker, one of three main sponsors of the petition, addressed the state board before it interviewed Kelley on Monday. Past board president Marijo Shide also addressed the board and made a similar argument.

At the opening of Monday's meeting, before Becker's and Shide's comments, board member Pam Kostelecky made a motion effectively asking the board to honor their request. That motion was defeated 6-2, with Kostelecky and board Vice President Richie Smith supporting it.

In a memo to state board members, search committee chairman Paul LeBel, dean of the UND Law School, listed several qualities his committee was asked to look for in presidential finalists and repeating cadence-like after each description: "the committee saw one candidate do that."

LeBel closed his memo by writing: "The committee is confident that Dr. Kelley will lead the university to even greater accomplishments than it has achieved in the past. The (UND) community expects no less, and the citizens of the state of North Dakota deserve no less."

In a meeting with LeBel, UND's vice president gave their only unanimous endorsement to Kelley. In a separate meeting, UND's deans threw their support behind either Kelley or Kathleen Long, LeBel said.

Strong support

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State board president John Paulsen spoke glowingly of Kelley on Monday while announcing the job offer, calling him "a wise and experienced academic leader . . . fair and decent in everything he does and says."

Those sentiments were echoed by several other board members and by Goetz, both after the job offer and during the formal interview.

During that interview, Kelley stressed the primacy of UND's liberal arts core, the importance of creating a shared vision at the university and in the university system, and his commitment to supporting students.

Kelley relied on his scientific background for several analogies: comparing the structure of relationships a university president manages to the complex structure of a cell and comparing decision making processes to a scientific experiment.

Kelley, 63, holds a Ph.D. in zoology and cell and developmental biology from the University of California-Berkeley.

He credited his years at Berkeley, as well as his librarian father and artist mother, with teaching him the importance of diplomacy and clearly thought-out positions.

"(In Berkeley) you were always challenged to prove yourself, in science experiments and in your political beliefs at the time," he said. "When you express yourself, you must be articulate, forceful and as clearly thought-through as you can possibly be."

When asked about the role of students, Kelley called them "the reason we're here" and stressed the importance of basic educational virtues such as instilling critical thinking.

"I'd like you to have a good time while you're here, and I'd like you to have a winning athletic program," Kelley told the state board's student member Nate Martindale. "But that's all secondary. I will have failed you if you don't have excellent educational and research opportunities. That's the core of what we do here. Everything else is kind of for fun."

Kelley worked for many years at the University of New Mexico in his native Albuquerque, rising to be chairman of the anatomy department before becoming associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1997. He left Illinois for Wyoming in 1999.

Marks reports on higher education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105, (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or jmarks@gfherald.com .

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