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Engelstads vs. Kennedy: A tricky waltz

Anyone wishing to understand the feud between the Engelstad Foundation and UND President Mark Kennedy faces a real barrier: Not enough information.

Obviously, the foundation's director, Kris Engelstad McGarry, is upset with the relationship between her organization and Kennedy. Last week, she told the Herald editorial board her communications with Kennedy have deteriorated, possibly resulting in fewer dollars donated to the university.

Her father, Ralph, was the donor behind the $110 million Ralph Engelstad Arena and its adjoining Betty Engelstad Center. The UND hockey team plays at the Ralph and the basketball and volleyball teams play at The Betty. The facility is operated by RE Arena Inc. and leased by the university.

McGarry requested the meeting with the Herald and was critical of Kennedy, saying he has threatened litigation against the foundation and has been "very passive aggressive."

If so, it's unfortunate. It's sad that this relationship has been allowed to deteriorate over the course of what sounds like several administrations. The current administration, at least as described by McGarry, apparently isn't making it any better.

It's a fundamental duty of the person in charge at UND to maintain a cordial and sincere relationship with the Engelstads. The president must be accommodating and grateful because the Engelstads have brought so much to UND and Grand Forks.

But also consider this: Kennedy simply may be working in the best interest of the university. And consider the waltz he must constantly dance to accommodate the generous Engelstad family while trying to do what he believes is right for the future of UND.

For instance, the Herald learned through an open-records request this week that Kennedy has urged the Engelstads to allow a Fighting Hawks logo at the center of the basketball floor at The Betty. The Engelstad family prefers that only "North Dakota" be etched at center court. This has become an obvious feud, despite McGarry last week telling the Herald editorial board the UND mascot isn't an issue with the family.

Kennedy believes the university needs to work on its branding, and his emails to McGarry reflect that. Regarding the logo at The Betty, he is supported by numerous other athletic department leaders.

When asked Tuesday to respond, Kennedy said "we could have a long, public narrative back and forth in this, or our preference would be to meet with the Engelstads to reach a conclusion that is mutually beneficial."

Kennedy is trapped, because to publicly incite the Engelstad family — even if he believes it's in the best interest of UND — will be a public-relations nightmare. It also could result in fewer donations. This is the challenging waltz he faces.

Our advice is twofold.

First, if Kennedy indeed is hostile with the Engelstads, we urge him to immediately try a new, more North Dakota, approach. "Please" and especially "thank you" likely will gain more supporters than issuing alleged threats.

Second, remember there are two sides to every story, and we've heard just one. We may never hear the other because Kennedy must be discrete.

But fair or not, Kennedy probably needs the Engelstad Foundation more than it needs him, and that's the tricky choreography he should remember as he asks for the next dance.