Mark Kennedy’s Quest For CU President May Seem Uniquely Turbulent, But To University Search Insiders That’s The Norm

May 1, 2019
Photo: Mark Kennedy University Of Colorado Anschutz HV 1 20190424
Mark Kennedy answers audience questions Wednesday April 24, 2019 at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Kennedy is the only finalist for the position of president at the University of Colorado. He's visiting all the campuses in the university system.

Update, May 2, 2019: The University of Colorado Board of Regents has voted to confirm Mark Kennedy as the president of the four-campus system. Our original story continues below.
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Seeking the presidency of a university isn’t for the faint of heart.

Mark Kennedy’s contentious coming out to faculty and students at the University of Colorado’s four campuses last week illustrated that.

Herman Wells, the former president of Indiana University, once observed that an ideal university president would combine “the physical charm of a Greek athlete, the cunning of Machiavelli, the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of a lion, the skin of a rhino … and the stomach of a goat,” according to a Forbes article.

A president must be accountable to everyone from alumni and donors to academic deans and lawmakers. They must work with leaders in athletics, academics, finances, marketing, fundraising, and research — in a shared governance model where faculty have input on the university’s direction.

“The job requires administrative and financial acumen, fundraising ability, and political deftness,” a Deloitte paper on the future of higher education leadership reads. It states that presidents must be measured and restrained, able to balance the demands for greater “return on investment in an era of rising tuition, as well as grapple with important issues like guns on campus and sexual assault, not to mention managing, in the case of the University of Colorado, a $4.5 billion dollar budget.

At all four CU campuses, comprising a population of 67,000 students, Kennedy faced pushback on everything from his congressional votes opposing abortion, to his ability to lead a system much more complex and larger than the University of North Dakota. The Board of Regents will vote whether or not to select Kennedy this Thursday.

Reservations Remain Ahead Of Vote

Former regents Patricia Hayes and Paul Schauer, both Republicans, said Kennedy’s responses to audience questions were often vague, lacking specifics regarding his objectives for the university, where he wants the university to be in five years, what goals he’d be pursuing, and his intent to maintain the reputation and accomplishments of CU.  

“When you look at the size of the university, the complexity of the university, four campuses at the university … we need somebody that knows how to manage a large institution,” Schauer said.

“I think that we can do better,” said Bob Sievers, a former regent and a Democrat.

Thursday’s vote will undoubtedly attract lots of attention.

For others, Kennedy’s record suggested he has the chops to lead the system. Steve Bosley, who led the presidential search for Bruce Benson and former CU president Hank Brown, said it’s not uncommon for presidents to move from a smaller university to a larger one. He noted that Kennedy has more higher education experience than Bruce Benson did and that his past working with bipartisan groups of legislators boded well.

Prior to Kennedy’s campus visits, Frank LoMonte, professor and director of The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said unless Kennedy “completely self-destructs” in the campus visits, it would be difficult for the Board to turn back.

“I think absent some really dramatic turn of events, they're going to have to go through with it because that would be even more damaging than the prospect of interviewing people in a public setting.”

Photo: CU Boulder Campus Protest Against Mark Kennedy 1 HV 20190415
Protesters opposed to the possibility of Mark Kennedy being named the next president of the University of Colorado gathered in front of Norlin Library on campus Monday April 15, 2019.

One Finalist, A Barrage Of Questions

When the Board of Regents unanimously advanced Mark Kennedy as the sole finalist, critics — including students, a former regent, a slew of letters to newspapers — question how the public can be confident a diverse, well-qualified pool of candidates was considered, or why the search didn’t turn out higher quality candidates.

The names of the other candidates who were interviewed aren’t public. Some have mused that possibly Colorado’s bottom ranking in state support for higher education could be a factor. Or the fact that CU is one of about five universities in the country where a board of regents is elected on a partisan basis. But national experts say those two factors likely wouldn’t dissuade anyone from applying to CU, a world-class research institute with five Nobel Laureates.

“It's not likely to be a disincentive, but a challenge that that one has to rise to,” Pasquerella said.

Jan Greenwood, president of a Florida-based firm specializing in higher education searches and the first woman president of a public four-year and graduate institution in Virginia, said there is no shortage of highly qualified people in the market right now.

“Nationally there are extremely good qualified people… women, and minorities, Caucasians, that are capable of leading a fine university and a university system,” she said. “So there is not a market issue with finding terrific people.”

Experts agree there is, however, increasing reluctance to take on the role of president. The average president’s tenure now is only about six years, in part because of the complexity of the job. Traditionally, the pipeline led from a provost, a chief academic officer, to a president. Today, universities increasingly look to candidates from business, industry, law and politics.

Mark Kennedy CU Denver Auraria HV 4 20190425
Mark Kennedy on Thursday April 25 2019 at CU Denver faced another day of pointed questions about his background as he continued his tour of University of Colorado campuses. Kennedy is the only finalist for the position of president at the university and is visiting all the campuses in the university system. Troyann Gentile, an assistant clinical professor in CU Denver's School of Education and Human Development, addressed Kennedy during the forum.

Search Confidentiality A Hot Campus Debate Nationwide

The CU Board of Regents said the process was thorough and rigorous. After considering more than 100 applicants, a 17-member search committee interviewed 10 candidates whose names weren’t publicly disclosed. They advanced six of those names to the Board of Regents, which unanimously selected Kennedy.

“We believe now what we did then – his skills and experience in business, government and higher education would make him a great president of the University of Colorado,” Board of Regents Chair Sue Sharkey and Vice Chair Jack Kroll said in an April statement.

The American Association of Colleges and Universities encourages as much openness as possible. But AAC&U president Lynn Pasquerella said the reality of a candidate facing hostile questions, intense public scrutiny and the threat of damaging relations at one’s existing university dissuades many from applying in open selection processes.

“When searches are open, it will immediately send a signal to one's own community that you're looking for another job and then that will undermine your ability to lead moving forward,” Pasquerella said. In public searches, she said, there has been an increasing number of attacks on candidates which causes them to rescind their candidacy before they ever move forward.

Former longtime CU Regent and businessman Steve Bosley recalled one possible finalist who repeatedly said to him, “You’ve got to protect me because my boss would fire me if he learned that I was applying for this job.”

Executive recruiter Jan Greenwood said both confidential and open searches yield well-credentialed candidates. But she’s observed that if it’s confidential there are often more successful presidents and chancellors willing to be part of the search.

“They don't want to lose major donations they've negotiated for their university or their system,” Greenwood said. “So they simply do not want to put themselves or their university in harm's way by being public.”  

LoMonte, who studies university presidential selections, found that a closed search was “slightly, but not dramatically” more likely to result in hiring away a sitting president from another college. It found no significant difference in the ability to attract a sitting president from a highly rated college. LoMonte is an outspoken critic of confidential searches and naming one sole finalist.

He points to a laundry list of failed presidencies that resulted from closed searches such as Norfolk State University firing their president Tony Atwater after two years leaving the university in financial disarray and accreditation in peril. He was hired in a closed-door search that didn’t allow those at his previous university, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, to come forward with evidence about his “spending habits” and “high conflict” leadership style, according to LoMonte.

CU’s search could be classified as semi-private. There was a sole finalist, but Kennedy had a full week of public forums, meetings with faculty committees, legislators, the governor and donors. Policy requires they wait two weeks between announcing finalists and making a final vote — but the week of public forums is customary, not mandatory.

LoMonte said it’s better than complete and total secrecy, but “honestly, not by much. Everybody knows that when you release a ‘finalist’ list of one, that it's not really a finalist at all. That's your hire, that's your choice.” He said secret searches undermine public trust and candidates’ legitimacy.

He said the uproar over Kennedy is emblematic of why a fully public process would have been better. If the regents really felt Kennedy was the best choice, he said, “ they should show their work.”

They should let people know what the pool looked like, and what caused Kennedy to rise to the top over these other finalists, LoMonte said.

Photo: Mark Kennedy University Of Colorado Anschutz HV 11 20190424
Mark Kennedy answers audience questions Wednesday April 24, 2019 at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Kennedy is the only finalist for the position of president at the University of Colorado. He's visiting all the campuses in the university system.

University President Isn’t The Job It Used To Be

Historically, university presidents were thought leaders, using their academic expertise and vision of higher education to move the institution forward. But as states have cut back on higher education investments, the job of the president has changed.

Greenwood, who conducts presidential searches, said the three big things a president or chancellor must do have not changed since the 1980’s: Providing leadership and vision, managing the institution and raising money. What has changed, she said, is that presidents have to spend a lot more time raising money than they used to.

“Presidents have had to do more in the area of hiring smart, delegating and holding people accountable,” she said. “So that management component has become very critically important.”

That may differ from what students and faculty feel is important. CU Faculty Council said it’s important to have someone who profoundly understands the academic mission and who has a deep regard for teaching and research excellence in the classroom. The board of regents’ decision will depend ultimately on what they decide the system needs the most right now.

Kennedy Face Questions About His Cultural And Ideological Fit

At all of the forums, faculty questioned Kennedy over his support for the liberal arts, LGBTQ students and immigrant students. They pushed him on votes he cast as a congressman on marriage equality and abortion. Michael Poliakoff of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni said political litmus testing of presidential candidates on campuses has gone on for years – especially on strongly partisan campuses.

He also said it's unfair to judge Kennedy on a voting record from years ago.

“The bottom line for great for effective university leadership is to listen to every constituency, but to be beholden to none,” he said.

He said it’s counterproductive to expect that the person chosen to lead is going to be a perfect cultural or ideological match.

Pasquerella has a slightly different take. She said the leader needs to reflect the mission and values of the institution, but also to push it forward if there needs to be the transformation of a culture.

Kennedy has repeatedly stated his commitment to diversity and inclusion, shared governance and academic freedom, as well as a commitment not to interfere in research, programs or the teaching mission. But many in the public forums remained skeptical about his commitments.

“How do you demonstrate redemption?” asked Pasquerella rhetorically, “and engage in reconciliation when you've had missteps that are inconsistent with the values of an institution?”

Photo: Mark Kennedy University Of Colorado Anschutz HV 12 20190424
Mark Kennedy answers audience questions Wednesday April 24, 2019 at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Kennedy is the only finalist for the position of president at the University of Colorado. He's visiting all the campuses in the university system.

Mark Kennedy Isn't The First Controversial Pick At CU

Current president Bruce Benson and his predecessor Hank Brown also faced pushback from the faculty council and others during their hiring. When Benson was selected, faculty, along with elected officials, decried his close ties to the oil and gas industry, his climate change denial, lack of academic background and chairmanship of the Colorado Republican Party. The Board of Regents approved him on a party-line vote with six Republicans for and three Democrats against.

Eventually, Benson’s record fundraising for research, promotion of cross-campus collaboration, money raised for scholarships, and supportive attitude towards faculty won over detractors.

“We have a good relationship right now with our president and our upper administration,” Faculty Council chair Joanne Addison told Kennedy in a recent meeting. “We don’t always agree but I believe we have a good relationship and we respect each other.”

Bosley said Benson grew into the job, a $4.5 billion dollar operation that is constantly evolving.

Benson pushed almost 100 pieces of legislation at the state Capitol in 11 years to bring about efficiencies and reduce system red tape.

Donors were impressed by his leadership skills. “If you're going to write a check for $1 million or $5 million and $10 million,” said Bosley, “you're going to want to have confidence in the leadership and what the university doing and what its long-term plans are.”

Bosley recounts when Boulder faculty were protesting one of the candidates for chancellor. President Hank Brown met with them and discussed their issues but also told them, “I’m looking for leadership that has had controversy in their life. If nobody's ever taken a chance and nobody's ever made a mistake and nobody has been controversial, they're not leading.”