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UND's Kennedy meets with Central Florida search committee

UND President Mark Kennedy speaks with Professor Manoj Chopra, a member of the committee interviewing candidates to be president of the University of Central Florida. Kennedy is a finalist for the job and attended a Forum at the Orlando university Wednesday, March 7. Photo by Michael McNarney / Forum News Service

ORLANDO, Fla.—University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy made his case Wednesday, March 7, to the public—in this case, a half-empty student union meeting room—that he should be the next president of the University of Central Florida.

Kennedy touted his largely non-academic background, his ability to shake the money tree and his personal connection with university community members as his biggest assets.

He is one of four finalists vying to lead the 66,000-student institution, which sits on the east side of Orlando, 45 minutes from Walt Disney World. The university's board of trustees will interview each finalist on Friday, March 9, and then make its pick. That person will then be interviewed by and approved in late March by the Florida Board of Governors.

After a 22-minute opening presentation—including a PowerPoint-style slide show replete with his wedding photo, pictures of the Kennedy family at Disney's Epcot center and photos of Kennedy playing foosball back in Grand Forks—he took unscreened questions from a mix of faculty, alumni and students.

One student, Cristobal Reyes, a senior in journalism from Miami, asked about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Two students running for student government president came to the U.S. as children illegally and, thus, are vulnerable to deportation.

As the student government president at UCF is automatically a member of the university's board of trustees, Reyes asked, how would Kennedy deal with a board of trustees member potentially being deported?

"I tend not to get involved in political issues unless they directly impact UCF and are a priority for UCF," Kennedy said, adding that he would apply two tests: "Is it directly related to UCF? And is my involvement going to make a difference? If it doesn't meet both those tests, I stay being president of the University of Central Florida, because that's what I get paid to do. And so you'll find that I am not anxious to engage in any political debate unless it meets those two criteria."

Afterward Reyes, who also works for a student publication on campus, said Kennedy—who served two terms in Congress representing Minnesota—sounded like a "typical politician."

"If a board of trustees member is at risk of being deported, that should raise a couple of red flags," Reyes said. "It's a little wishy-washy, what he's trying to say."

Another questioner brought up a central issue at UCF—how to balance continued enrollment growth with giving students a quality education. Students and faculty alike complain of overcrowded classes, and the Orlando area gained more than 59,000 people in 2016.

"We need to have the excellence. I'm very worried about making sure that we have quality teaching, that we have quality research," Kennedy said. "How many people's lives will we touch? We're not going to help them if we're not delivering excellence."

Kennedy also promoted online classes—if UCF isn't educating people online, he said, someone else will—while acknowledging that being a good classroom teacher is a different skill than being a good online teacher.

Two candidates—Matthew Wilson, president of the University of Akron, and Dale Whittaker, provost at UCF—have already made their campus presentations. Suresh Garimella, an executive vice president at Purdue University, will present on Thursday, March 8.

Kennedy said later that he hoped his presentation was well received.

"There are a lot of good things we are doing at the University of North Dakota," he said. "I'm certainly bringing those insights here if I am lucky enough to be their president."