The pending departure of UND President Mark Kennedy is a huge opportunity for UND and the state university system. Here's why, and here's how the opportunity can be realized.
First, Kennedy is likely to go, despite protests against him in Colorado, where he is the only finalist to take over the University of Colorado system, despite campus protests and despite the governor's suggestion that he wouldn't be welcome.
Colorado has been drifting toward the Democrats. Hilary Clinton carried the state by 4.9 percent; both houses of the Legislature are in Democratic hands, and the governor is a Democrat. That leaves the board of regents as the last bastion of Republican strength. Colorado elects its regents, one for each congressional district, and Republicans have a 5-4 majority.
Bruce Benson, current president of the University of Colorado system, is a former chair of the state Republican Party and its gubernatorial candidate in 1994. His appointment 10 years ago drew protests. Politics were less divisive then, and the stakes for Republicans were less. He got the job anyway.
Thus, precedent suggests that Kennedy will survive the protests and get the job, despite his voting record in Congress.
Even if Colorado rejects Kennedy, he won't be welcome at UND. Despite some successes on campus (detailed elsewhere in an earlier column) his ego and ambition wrecked his effectiveness here.
Most recently, his plan to allow his chief of staff to work from Texas drew sharp criticism. In his defense, Kennedy tried to aggrandize himself by demeaning North Dakotans. Be gone, state leaders said, including the interim president who preceded Kennedy. Ed Schafer, a former governor, suggested Kennedy might stay if he handcuffed himself to the campus flagpole, then welded the cuffs to the pole.
Just to be sure, a faction of the North Dakota board - including its only practicing attorney - drafted a letter accepting Kennedy's "de facto resignation" effective June 15. Chancellor Mark Hagerott signed the letter. Board Chair Don Morton later said Kennedy would be welcomed back. Apparently, Morton was acting in keeping with the board's discredited policy that it should speak with a single voice, although each of the board's eight members has equal voting power.
The board will have new leadership. Morton's term as board chair ends in June, although he has a year left on the board. The incoming chair is Nick Hacker. He's been a behind-the-scenes critic of the recent dysfunction on the board, and he supported the letter, which was drafted by Dan Traynor, a recent board appointee, who said it "was meant to protect the state."
This is not the only issue confronting the board, of course. Last week the state auditor called attention to an apparent conflict of interest at the State College of Science in Wahpeton, which has been little reported (though it was a factor in delaying the college president's contract renewal a year ago - and points to a lack of resolve on the board).
More important by far is the potential existential anxiety facing the board. The Legislature has passed a constitutional amendment nearly doubling the board's size. A second amendment may be initiated that would abolish the existing board in favor of two separate boards, one for the research universities and one for the state's nine other public colleges - an idea favored by Gov. Doug Burgum. A third idea has been floated, removing the names of colleges from the constitution. Initiated constitutional amendments would require signatures of 4 percent of the state's population at the last census. Any constitutional amendment would require voter approval.
This uncertainty may seem daunting, but it paves a path forward.
UND needs a strong interim president, someone trusted on the campus and in the state, someone who knows the issues and the players, someone who can lead the university while the board itself seeks a permanent replacement, someone who can serve until the question of governance - an important consideration for a presidential candidate - is settled.
There are potential candidates on campus and elsewhere in the state.
A two-year interim would allow the board to assess available candidates, thus avoiding the expense and the missteps of a hurried search. A large business enterprise would use this approach, and there's precedent for it in North Dakota. In 1938, the president of UND, John C. West, acted as interim at the Agricultural College, now NDSU, during the crisis that led to the creation of the current board.
Of course, conditions are different today - both institutions are very much larger than they were, and the rivalry between them very much greater, effectively precluding that sort of solution today.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.