Mike Jacobs: Can this presidency be saved?
Can this presidency be saved? That's the question being asked at UND, not least by the president himself. Mark Kennedy has said he hopes to regain the confidence of the campus community and the state. He's begun an effort to achieve that goal.
The question isn't new, but it's gained urgency in the wake of Kennedy's unsuccessful application for a different presidency, the one at the University of Central Florida. He was one of four finalists. Kennedy has insisted that he didn't seek the job but responded to an invitation to apply.
The application came less than 20 months into his presidency at UND, and it wasn't welcomed on campus, in the community or in higher education circles. As I pointed out here early in the process, loyalty is part of North Dakota's political culture.
Of course, the possibility was tempting; Central Florida pays its president potentially more than three times what Kennedy gets at UND. Kennedy probably saw the application as low personal risk. He might get the job, and if he didn't the fact that he was a candidate might tamp down criticism of him on campus and in the state.
Instead, it weakened him, perhaps fatally.
Disloyalty was one issue, but hardly the only one. Kennedy's presentation at UCF emphasized transparency and collaboration, as reflected in listening sessions held in North Dakota and in collaboration in decision making. In North Dakota he was seen as better at presenting than at listening and his decisions were more regarded as pre-emptive rather than collaborative.
Kennedy made the situation worse in a radio interview, when he blamed low morale on campus on the Legislature's tight-fistedness. Morale is a function of leadership. He apologized, and he's begun efforts to mend the damage, including meeting with legislators.
The gaffe was especially galling to lawmakers because Kennedy's political experience played a role in his selection. He represented a Minnesota district in Congress, and began his academic career after losing a race for the U.S. Senate.
Expectations of political savvy were therefore high. Kennedy spoiled that scenario early, when he suggested that he should be referred to as "the honorable" based on his service in Congress. Humility is another virtue in North Dakota's political culture.
Kennedy had lost the support of much of the campus before he applied for the Florida job, and once lost, it's hard to regain. Dexter Perkins, a longtime professor of geology, outlined faculty grievances in a letter to the Herald published Thursday. Kennedy "just doesn't get it," he wrote. William Brotherton, an alumnus, called for a "full-time unifier" in an opinion piece published March 24.
Leadership problems on campus extend beyond the president's office. The provost is unpopular and widely distrusted by faculty. Some key positions are open. The law school dean stepped down, perhaps partly because of poor bar exam pass rates by its graduates. A search failed to find a new dean for the business college and a second search is underway; ditto for the vice president for university relations. The dean of engineering is a finalist for the provost job at Ohio University.
All this adds up to a feeling of drift. Drift is a consequence of leadership.
The biggest problem, though, is not on campus but beyond. Kennedy made a favorable first impression at the Legislature. He was just six months into the job when the session began, and he is good at presentations, after all. That good will eroded as issues on campus mounted and it evaporated when Kennedy became a "looker" instead of a leader and a loyalist. Ray Holmberg, chair of the state Senate Appropriations Committee and an important point person on higher education, expressed his disappointment and frustration in a news article printed April 4.
Given all this, the system chancellor, Mark Hagerott, has begun asking about Kennedy's status, and at least some members of the Board of Higher Education have begun considering options.
The Central Florida search has already claimed one victim. Matthew Wilson, president of the University of Akron, a unit of the Ohio University system, resigned after he failed to get the Florida job. He returned to a tenured position in the law school there. He'd been president about as long as Kennedy. Reaction to his candidacy elsewhere was about the same.
The Akron option won't work at UND. There's no promise of tenure in Kennedy's contract, the university system office said.
The more relevant precedent may be the departure of UND's own president in 1999. Kendall Baker accepted a buyout offered by the board. Kennedy's contract has a year to run; his yearly salary is $365,000, likely the minimum cost of a buyout.
Or North Dakota could follow the Herald's own advice. An editorial headline on March 15 said, "Kennedy still president at UND; accept it."
Could that be an option?
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher at the Herald. His column is published each Tuesday.