Jacobs: Bewilderment in UND circles

Mike Jacobs is a Grand Forks Herald columnist.

A sense of bewilderment settled over the UND community when names of presidential candidates were released Monday. “What happened?” a friend and alum tweeted.

It’s a good question.

Certainly, the list did not reflect priorities that had been widely discussed both during Mark Kennedy’s tenure and immediately after his departure. These are worth considering in detail – without casting any aspersions on the names that do appear on the list.

No sitting presidents made the list, unless the definition is stretched to include interim appointees. At the search committee’s first meeting Chancellor Mark Hagerott celebrated the “great legislative victory” that closed the search process until finalists are named. The move was made, he said then, to enable presidents to apply without risk to their status on their own campuses.

The drumbeat for closed searches had been sounded for some time. Ed Schafer strongly supported the idea when he left after six months as interim president in 2016. As a former governor, his voice was heard, and legislators amended the state’s open meetings law to exempt hiring decisions. Only names of three finalists need be published, the law now says.


The list of finalists published this week casts doubt on the argument for secrecy.

The committee actually bent the rules a bit by publishing the names of six finalists, double the number required. This allowed the search committee to invite more potential candidates for the campus visits that have become a staple of recent searches. The committee did not visit other campuses to check candidate standing, however; that was last done in 1999, when Charles Kupchella was chosen.

Other factors might explain the lack of sitting presidents on the list of finalists. One is salary. Last academic year the median for presidents of public colleges — all sizes, all responsibilities – was $438,000, according to a survey printed in “The Chronicle of Higher Education.” UND’s Kennedy made $365,000 a year; he left for Colorado and an immediate raise of almost $300,000 annually.

There’s a second problem. Presidents of North Dakota’s research universities get roughly the same pay, even though UND is a more complicated operation involving several professional schools and related research institutions – medicine, law, aerospace and energy research for examples. NDSU’s focus is largely on agriculture. Its only other unique college compared with UND is pharmacy.

Still another issue is the relatively small gap between salaries at the research universities and the nine other state-supported colleges. The gap between salaries for top presidents and immediate subordinates is also narrow; in at least one case a vice president makes substantially more than the sum earmarked for a new president. Winning coaches in hockey at UND and football at NDSU also make more than their campus presidents.

Only one woman’s name is on the list, although listening sessions and committee members made a point of stressing the importance of female candidates – and the important statement hiring a woman could make about UND and the state, where all 11 public college presidents are men. No woman has ever been president of UND. Plus, a woman president would replace a president quite conspicuously indifferent to women’s issues.

None of the candidates on the list has North Dakota credentials. The need to appreciate and understand the state was stressed in the sessions leading up to the search, and some board members openly advocated recruiting candidates with North Dakota ties. Some potential candidates were approached, Committee Co-chair Denny Elbert said. When I asked about specific individuals who had been discussed, he said that each had not applied.

The candidate pool contains several candidates with experience in neighboring states, but the lack of North Dakota ties is especially bewildering. One explanation might be the decision to use an outside search firm rather than a North Dakota firm, as some board members had advocated. Chancellor Hagerott argued for the national firm that found Kennedy and Hagerott himself. A national search is standard procedure in presidential searches, but it works against local candidates because the search firm has a vested interest in advancing its own candidates. There’s remuneration involved.


North Dakota’s search occurs at mid-point in the college year. That might have affected the character of the pool because fewer academics are seeking jobs in the middle of the academic year.

None of this is meant to prejudge any of the candidates. They’ll each visit campus beginning about Nov 12. A choice is expected in early December.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of Joshua Wynne’s interim presidency. As one wag said, “the shoes keep getting bigger,” and it’s true that Wynne’s stature has grown since he took on the job of interim president, adding to his role as vice president and dean of the medical school.

As the names were reviewed, the bewilderment grew, and I heard another possibility voiced on campus, downtown and in state political circles: Could Wynne be UND’s next president?

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.

What To Read Next
Get Local