University of Colorado presidential hopeful Mark Kennedy faced boos and applause as he took the stage at the Macky Auditorium in Boulder. He was there to make his pitch for why he is the right man to lead the CU system. Faculty representatives and many student groups met his nomination as the lone finalist for the position with skepticism and dismay.
In a week of forums, Kennedy, the current president of the University of North Dakota, addressed questions about his voting record as a congressman a decade ago, his political career and the ways his political views would influence his leadership. It was a reflection of the increasing politicization of college campuses and the hiring process for high-profile leaders.
“What can you expect from me?” he told the audience in Boulder. “You can expect for me to focus on the four priorities the regents have set forth,” including fiscal responsibility, keeping college affordable and accessible, increasing graduation rates, and elevating research.
In the Macky Auditorium he faced the most antagonistic crowd yet. When he stumbled over the use of the word exclusive versus inclusive in describing his goal for the campus climate, some forum attendees booed. Earlier in the week, he was criticized for stumbling over the term LGBTQ.
He also fielded questions about he handled massive budget cuts at the University of North Dakota. One student asked him about efforts underway to reform the restrictions on tax collection in Colorado, known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. CU currently receives around 5 percent of its funding from the state.
Kennedy said he supports freeing up TABOR surplus revenue that would ordinarily go back to taxpayers for legislative purposes such as funding higher education. He also said he wants to form a coalition with other colleges in Colorado and business partners to push for a greater investment in higher education.
“I will support whatever that coalition deems to be the most important way we support education,” he said.
Concerns About Views On Diversity
During his political career as a congressman from Minnesota, Kennedy voted against marriage equality and cast controversial votes on abortion access and civil rights issues. But in forums, Kennedy affirmed his commitment to prioritizing diversity and said he’d make it one of the university’s top strategic priorities.
He pointed to his track record of hiring diverse candidates into high-ranking positions and his record on immigration. That record included votes against requiring hospitals to turn over records and for allowing residents to use ID cards issued by Mexico for certain services like opening bank accounts.
At Thursday’s forum, he announced he’d form an advisory council, which would include a representative from One Colorado, an organization that advocates for rights for the state’s LGBTQ community.
“We were excited to hear about how Kennedy is committed to living up to the diverse and inclusive environment that is the CU community,” One Colorado’s deputy director Sheena Kadi said in a statement.
Still, Kennedy’s answers sometimes seemed to unsettle attendees and revealed a rift between the system’s rank and file and their prospective leader. Although Kennedy repeatedly reaffirmed his support for diversity and promised to “engage” on these issues, several forum attendees indicated they wanted a more passionate and proactive champion to make campuses more diverse.
“Even if you've fundamentally changed your views, what does it say that you've had such views so recently?” geology professor Stephen Mojzsis asked at the CU Boulder forum. At Denver’s Auraria campus, people raised questions about his record as treasurer for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s presidential exploratory committee and his conservative beliefs.
Kennedy apologized for his vote on marriage equality. He said his views began change when he reflected on his mother’s push to, “look for the kid at the edge of the class,” and include them. He also mentioned friendships with members of the LGBTQ community.
“We need to make all communities feel included and have the support systems,” he said.
There were also indications that conservative students on campus had their own concerns about inclusion.
“As you can see, they're not very welcoming to conservatives here because of obviously what they've been doing to you today,” a young woman who only identified herself as a conservative student told Kennedy during the Boulder forum. She asked him what he would do to protect the First Amendment as president.
Kennedy repeatedly promised to defend academic freedom for all members of the CU community and criticized the creation of political echo chambers. He also proposed a series of lectures from members of the CU community and beyond aimed at representing a wider swath of viewpoints; he hoped it would challenge people “to think more broadly.”
His handling of a 2016 incident of racist Snapchat photos involving a student at the University of North Dakota also drew scrutiny. Kennedy said he condemned the photos and met with students about how the university could create a more inclusive campus. However, UND found that the photos didn’t violate the university’s Code of Student Life. Kennedy said the matter was handled in a way consistent with the university’s free speech and collaborative governance policies.
A Vision For Innovation And Research
Although his vision for CU’s future received less attention than his politics, Kennedy put forward the bones of a plan focused on technology and innovation.
“I’ll be a champion of research,” Kennedy said. He mentioned his admiration of John F. Kennedy’s leadership of the moon program and said he planned to help students “achieve their personal moonshots, whatever their dream might be.”
At the University of North Dakota, he developed a strategic plan focusing on five major initiatives, including energy development and environmental sustainability, big data, autonomous flight, and rural opioid treatment. He expanded experiential learning and online learning and boosted graduation and retention rates.
There were also reports that he decimated the liberal arts, drastically shrank foreign languages and also appears to have rubbed some people the wrong way. Others questioned his commitment as this is the second job he has applied for during his 30 months in North Dakota.
The board of regents will collect and review the feedback from the forums and vote on his hiring on May 2.
The tense response may stem in part from the sometimes-opaque process. As has become standard on some college campuses, no other candidate was named and early reports from the regents indicated they had not completed a full vetting process before releasing Kennedy’s name, although Sue Sharkey and Jack Kroll, the chair and vice chair of the board of regents, denied them.
Some in the audience questioned why he was the unanimous selection of the nine-member board of regents as the sole finalist. The Board of Regents has shared very few details, other than his experience in business, politics and higher education, to explain how he stood out from other candidates.
Following a forum in Colorado Springs, Sue Sharkey said she was impressed with his commitment to instruction and students.
“He wants to be engaged in higher education, not just at an office on Grant Street in Denver,” she said, referring to the University of Colorado system central office. Sharkey disputes that the selection process wasn’t thorough and open. She also said it was more competitive than previous presidential searches. She said the board interviewed six candidates before selecting Kennedy.
When asked if he’d step back and engage in a competitive hiring process with multiple candidates, Kennedy said he’d defer to the regents.
“That is their decision, not my decision," he said Friday.
When the board votes next week, they can choose to hire him, or to reopen the search. They can also ask current president Bruce Benson to continue on for a period or name an interim leader.