Mike Jacobs: UND vacancy should prompt change
Just to be clear: It's not my fault that Mark Kennedy is leaving UND. In a column published the morning Kennedy was hired, I tried to warn him — and the Board of Higher Education --- that North Dakotans aren't good at being talked down to. Kennedy didn't listen and the board didn't seem to care. That was a big mistake. Kennedy's ego and ambition kept getting in the way, and in less than three years ruined his effectiveness on campus and destroyed his credibility in Bismarck.
Kennedy is the only finalist for the presidency of the University of Colorado system, which has four campuses — including the famous one in Boulder — and 67,000 students. It's a step up for Kennedy, literally and figuratively. Of course, Kennedy found a way to aggrandize himself; his success, he said, distinguishes UND.
Technically, he doesn't have the job quite yet. Colorado's selection system works quite differently than the one employed in North Dakota in two important ways, both of which may better match Kennedy's temperament. First, it is an overtly political board. Its members are elected. For many years, Republicans have held a majority on the board and previous presidents have been active Republicans. In fact, the incumbent, who is now 80 years old, was chairman of the Colorado Republican Party and once ran for governor. Kennedy served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican.
Clearly, Colorado is comfortable with political activity; in fact, members of the Board of Regents suggested Kennedy's political experience would prove a benefit. No doubt some members of North Dakota's Board of Higher Education thought that, too, but there's a key difference between North Dakota and Colorado. Colorado is a developing "blue state," trending farther left, while North Dakota is a solidly red state. This creates quite a different political dynamic. In North Dakota, Republicans are at odds with one another; in Colorado, they're more unified because they are fewer.
Still, a challenge seems to have arisen: Kennedy's congressional record. His support of the Defense of Marriage Act — since declared unconstitutional — worries LGBTQ activists. It's unlikely the offer will be withdrawn.
This difference with North Dakota's system is revealing. Our system fears politics; Colorado's system embraces politics.
The second difference is equally telling. Colorado picks a finalist, then waits two weeks to make a binding decision. The delay allows the finalist to visit campuses and for interest groups to voice any objections.
North Dakota's process is the opposite. Although recent legislation ordered that applicants' names be kept secret until the field is whittled to three, the interviewing process is public. What's more, the search committee that recommends finalists is large, and it's intended to give voice to interest groups ranging from janitors to generous donors. The board interviews the finalists in public, then makes a decision in private, usually on the same day.
This is both cumbersome and expensive. It hasn't worked very well, partly because it has a built-in bias against local candidates, which discourages sitting presidents from developing their successors. UND hasn't had a successful internal candidate since 1970, when Tom Clifford was named — even though his name wasn't on the list of finalists recommended by the search committee. The board had to ask for it.
State law doesn't require a big search committee; one way out of the mess the university system has stumbled into is to conduct what might be called a "continuing search," keeping a lookout on promising administrators within the university system and watching the careers of administrators who have North Dakota connections with a view to encouraging their interest in returning to guide the state's colleges.
There have been such candidates in the past, but the cumbersome selection system has managed to pass over every one of them. Kennedy claimed North Dakota connections; his parents lived in the state and the first lady is an NDSU graduate. Still it was clear from the beginning that Kennedy was not a good match for North Dakota. He lacked any understanding of UND traditions or sympathy with its aspirations, and he made no effort to gain any.
Kennedy did have some success here. He tackled the problem of deferred maintenance, including demolishing buildings. He won student support for a new Student Union building. Other projects are in the works, so the university campus will bear his mark.
So, too, will its aspirations. Kennedy pushed the campus into the online age, and he raised the emphasis on research (too bad that his personal style turned lawmakers against him and led to defeat of the appropriation, and angered major donors).
Kennedy proved to be ill-suited for North Dakota, and almost immediately began looking for other jobs. His experience here may have blunted his ego and his successful job search may have satisfied his ambition. Perhaps he can become a successful leader in a system more suited to his style.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.