The CU System’s Contentious Presidential Nominee, Mark Kennedy, On The Record

Listen Now
Photo: CU Boulder Campus Protest Against Mark Kennedy 2 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.

The sole finalist for the position of University of Colorado system president is facing backlash from students and faculty.

Mark Kennedy, currently the president of the University of North Dakota and a former Minnesota congressman, is now defending himself against claims that his Congressional record on abortion and marriage equality should disqualify him from the position.

A letter from opponents, calling on CU's Board of Regents to revisit his nomination, garnered more than 4,500 signatures. Next week, Kennedy will tour all four university campuses.

The Board of Regents could vote on his nomination by the end of next week.

Kennedy talked to Colorado Matters about the criticism he's faced, his thoughts on affirmative action and more.

Editor's Note: In this interview, we used the wrong pronoun for Naya O'Reilly, who uses they/them pronouns. The transcript has not been changed because it is a record of what was said during the interview.

Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. The University of Colorado system is a behemoth. Four campuses, 67,000 students. And it's looking for a new president. The Regents' search has yielded a sole finalist, Mark Kennedy. But despite their unanimous, bi-partisan support for him, the broader CU community is skeptical. Students and the faculty council, among others, have registered complaints and on Monday there was a protest on the Boulder campus. Mark Kennedy spoke to me Tuesday about the prospect of leading CU. Mark, thank you for being with us.


Mark Kennedy: Happy to be with you.


RW: Just a little background, you've been president of the University of North Dakota since 2016. Before that, your resume includes a six year stint in Congress representing Minnesota as a Republican. Why are you the right person to lead the University of Colorado?


MK: To lead an organization the size and scale of the University of Colorado, you need somebody with three separate skills. You need to have somebody that has experience in academia and I have found that having taught at Johns Hopkins made me a better school leader at George Washington University, and having been that school leader at GW made me a better president at University of North Dakota. You also need to know how to manage an organization of $4.5 billion. Having been treasurer of Macy's, which is as large as any company in Colorado, I have the experience of leading organizations at the scale of University of Colorado. Third of all, you're a public university with a lot of constituencies that need to be actively engaged, brought together with a common vision and so bringing together that academic business and political experience is absolutely vital.


RW: What's your vision for the university? If you make your mark, it's in what way?


MK: What really animates me is the fact that technology is transforming our lives and the universities. You've got the have and the have nots technologically. Technology is benefiting some, leaving others behind. We need to do a better job bringing the benefits of technology, preparing them for the careers of tomorrow, whether that be the single mother seeking to enhance her career or a 53 year old laid off worker looking to chart a new path. At the same time, this new economy is creating jobs that we haven't even thought of and most of the students today will work at careers that haven't even been invented yet. That requires critical thinking, so we at the university need to make sure that we're putting contrasting views, that we're having debates in a thoughtful, respectful way, and third of all, our waning commitment to research threatens to leave us behind.

So I'm personally committed to calling for a renewed academic government business partnership to redouble our commitment to maintaining our nation's innovative edge.


RW: Your candidacy has been met with concern in the system. Much of that goes back to your time in Congress. Specifically a number of votes you cast concerning marriage equality and stem cell research. A letter dated Sunday with more than 4,500 signatures was given to the Board of Regents and it stated that you wouldn't be someone who "would maintain CU's academic rankings and public image or bring together our diverse students, staff and faculty." Continuing to quote here, "Colorado's reputation as an open and inclusive place to live, work and study would be damaged by the choice of Mr. Kennedy." We'll unpack a couple of the specific concerns but overall, what is your reaction to that assessment?


MK: I'm going to be a champion for welcoming all to the community, that my views as it relates to the abortion issue, are not going to have an impact on the university. If it impacts it in any way, it would be in research and that's really the purview of the campuses. I would also say that —


RW: Let me just put a very fine point on that before we move on. You're saying that your stance on abortion will have no influence on the sorts of science that's conducted on any of the campuses, just to be clear?


MK: To be clear, yes.


RW: Okay, got it.


MK: Academic freedom protects that for the faculty and if it's done anywhere, it's done at the campus level. I'm at the system level, and on the LGBTQ, I've already put out a statement on that and I stand by that statement. I am committed to respecting the dignity of each individual student, faculty, staff, members of the community. They'll have the full support to do whatever we can to get them to graduation, make them feel welcome on campus and I will do that no matter who they love or how they identify.


RW: You talked about dignity for LGBTQ people. Contrast that for me with a vote in 2004 for the Marriage Protection Amendment which would have amended the US Constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. That didn't pass ultimately, but in conversations that we've had on the ground with folks who are concerned about your candidacy, we heard from a student at CU Boulder, Naya O'Reilly, a leader in the campus's LGBTQ community. She says, "I don't feel safe with him being on campus." What do you say?


MK: I say that as I said in my statement, that my view as with society overall has evolved in the more than a decade since that vote was taken. I have asked the question, "Would I vote the same way?" I've said no. I think what I would tell to that student is, "Look at my record in my eight years in academia, making sure that everybody feels safe, feels included." Not just that doing all we can to provide the kind of support to get them to the finish line of a degree that will open up opportunities for them and those they love.


RW: Mark, I think this is so fascinating because we're at a time when people are so entrenched in their positions, and you talk about an evolution, particularly on the LGBTQ issue. What is that evolution? Help us understand it. I think it's fascinating.


MK: I think it's an understanding that we need to be welcoming and treating them with dignity, treating them with respect, understanding that they may come from a different place than we come from, but that in no way, shape or form means that they don't deserve as much dignity and respect and support as any other student.


RW: Was there someone who was influential in helping shape that evolution for you?


MK: Well, I've had a number of folks. You may have seen Roberto Izurieta who recently put out a statement in support that said from the moment we met, my life has been testimony; that there is no space within Mark Kennedy for discrimination or exclusion.


RW: Izurieta is an associate professor at George Washington.


MK: But we have many others throughout the university community and those I've worked with and others that I call friend that have really helped to shape my thinking.


RW: Earlier this month, the US Education Department's Office for Civil Rights told Texas Tech University's medical school to stop considering race in admissions. The move was regarded by some as a sign that the Trump administration is increasing its efforts to curb Affirmative Action policies. What are your thoughts in general on Affirmative Action in college admissions?


MK: I have not wrestled with that at the university yet in that our restrictions have not been as, let me go back. Can I just not answer that question?


RW: That's your choice.


MK: I apologize. You caught me off guard there. I think however we do admissions, it has to be done in a way to recognize that diversity provides a benefit to all, and there are many ways of doing it. Each university needs to wrestle with it in its own way, but making sure that we have an admissions policy that is embracing a diverse population of students and giving each the benefit of understanding each other. I'm a person that is a first generation college graduate. My wife was a first generation college grad. Is truly devoted to trying to replicate those same opportunity for others.


RW: Do you like Affirmative Action?


MK: I believe that we need to be fair and equal to all and fully embracing of achieving diversity in the best way we can within that.


RW: You're listening to Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner, and my guest is the sole finalist to lead the CU system; that's Mark Kennedy. Your potential predecessor at CU, Bruce Benson, was president for more than a decade. Is that the kind of commitment you'd hope to make at CU?


MK: I would hope that this would be my capstone career within academia.


RW: Before you formally interviewed for the CU job, I understand you came out to Colorado on your own, visited all four campuses. Just briefly, what did you learn from that trip?


MK: Well, I learned CU Boulder is truly one of the most beautiful campuses on the planet. I saw some deferred maintenance there that others acknowledge, by their reports as a half a billion dollars of deferred maintenance. I've dealt with a similar issue at University of North Dakota, and I want to keep Boulder the most beautiful campus on the planet.

If you look at Denver and Colorado Springs, they're fabulous universities serving populations that are in need of higher ed. I think those two campuses combined with our online are ideally positioned for the outreach to nontraditional students, and Anschutz is truly one of the remarkable medical campuses for a university in the country. So I truly think that these are four gems in a great system but I think can even rise higher in the ranks of the world's best universities.


RW: I'm wondering if your political experience would be an asset here in Colorado, which is one of the lowest funded states in the nation when it comes to higher education. I mean, the revenue CU gets from the state is only somewhere between 4 - 6 percent of its total budget. Would that be a goal, like increasing that figure? Or short of that, what ideas do you have with regards to fundraising at CU?


MK: Well, Bruce Benson has done a great job on fundraising. I would hope to continue in that path, but I would also say yes, we need to continually make the case for the benefits that CU and our graduates make for the state, the benefits that our research provides, and why it's important for the state to invest more in CU.


RW: Mark, thanks for your time. Appreciate it.


ML: Thanks much.