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Comments from UND's Kennedy draw criticism from community, state leaders

UND President Mark Kennedy presents his chief of staff, Angelique Foster, with a Presidential Medal, one of the highest honors the president can bestow. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy is under fire after community and state leaders described comments he made Wednesday, April 10, to a Colorado newspaper as “hogwash” and “horribly disappointing.”

In Colorado, scrutiny of Kennedy’s congressional voting record left at least one member of the Board of Regents urging a second look at his status as the lone finalist for the presidency at the University of Colorado and four campuses in its university system.

The wave of reaction came following an announcement Wednesday that Kennedy is the lone finalist for the position and is awaiting final approval during a 14-day waiting period. During those two weeks, Kennedy is scheduled to visit the Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs and Anschutz Medical campuses.

After the announcement, Kennedy was interviewed by Boulder’s Daily Camera newspaper and was asked about his decision to promote his assistant, Angelique Foster, to chief of staff and allow her to work remotely from Texas.

That decision, widely reported in February, drew criticism from many in North Dakota. However, Kennedy reconsidered the decision and announced later that month that Foster would instead step away from that post.

"I fear that part of the reason that that article got as much attention as it did is some people couldn't understand how a young African-American woman from the South could be as qualified and worthy" to do the job as others, Kennedy told the Daily Camera. "I'm quite confident it is about more than remote working."

Thursday, Kennedy provided a statement to the Grand Forks Herald that noted he “took immediate action” and called the Boulder newspaper when he saw his comments “were more pointed” than intended. He said North Dakota is welcoming and inclusive.

“I did not mean to offend and for it to give a negative impression of North Dakota and apologize,” he said.

Nonetheless, the comment was the subject of criticism Thursday.

Ed Schafer, former governor of North Dakota and interim president at UND before Kennedy’s arrival, called Kennedy’s comments “hogwash” and said Foster was welcomed with open arms on campus.

Grand Forks City Council President Dana Sande said Thursday that Kennedy “called people in our community as well as in the state — he called us racist misogynists. That’s pretty negative. I don’t think you can get any more negative than that.

“To me, it’s horribly disappointing,” Sande said.

Sande said Foster does great work but that the community generally “didn’t think a chief of staff could work from out of town.”

Regents chair praises Kennedy

University of Colorado Board of Regents Chair Sue Sharkley said she appreciates Kennedy’s knowledge and vision of higher education. She said Kennedy spoke of his UND strategic plan and what his plans would be as the president of the University of Colorado during his interview.

Kennedy’s efforts in rural North Dakota and in online education were also impressive, Sharkley said. Sharkley represents the state’s fourth congressional district, which is a primarily rural area and includes the cities of Greeley and Parker, Colo.

The regents also discussed various controversies Kennedy has been involved with in his time at UND. Sharkley said regents were satisfied with Kennedy’s answers regarding those controversies.

She did not have any concerns with Kennedy as a candidate.

Should he be appointed president of the University of Colorado, Kennedy would oversee four campuses, Sharkley said. The chancellors of each campus report to the president.

Sharkley said Kennedy’s experience in business, higher education and government was a “trifecta” for the board.

Kennedy’s nomination as the finalist for the position is a good reflection on UND, Sharkley said.

Voting record

Late Wednesday, Colorado regent Lesley Smith, a Democrat who is an at-large representative, tweeted about Kennedy’s candidacy, and his congressional voting record.

“There's a 14-d vetting period before we vote for President. Some information about Mark has come to light that is concerning; my colleagues and I will be exploring this further,” she tweeted.

Kennedy was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2007. He voted to restrict abortion rights and voted in favor of an amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Smith told the Daily Camera that regents had not explicitly discussed Kennedy’s voting record during his interview and she was not aware of it.

“We all want to be aware of anything that might be a flash point,” she told the Boulder newspaper.

Schafer said it isn’t fair to go after Kennedy’s congressional voting record because it was many years ago and is not pertinent to his role as president.

Job searches

Kennedy has attempted to leave UND before.

In February 2018, he was announced as one of four presidential finalists at the University of Central Florida. Kennedy ultimately was not offered the position.

This February, UND said Kennedy had no interest in jobs outside of the university. At that time, rumors were circulating that Kennedy had applied to be the president of the University of Minnesota.

Schafer said he believes Kennedy was using UND as a stepping stone last year when he applied at the University of Central Florida, noting he had only been at the university for a year and a half.

Schafer said when Kennedy returned from Florida it seemed he had “learned his lesson” and traveled the state on a “proverbial apology tour,” saying that he loved UND and was committed to the school.

Then, Kennedy said he was recruited for the Colorado job.

Jim Poolman, who was a part of the presidential search committee that selected Kennedy, said he’s “disappointed that it seems ever since he stepped foot on campus, he’s wanted to go somewhere else.”

Schafer said when companies and institutions attract good people, they often lose good people, as well. He said he wasn’t surprised to learn Kennedy was looking for another job or was recruited by headhunters.

Kennedy’s contract with the State Board of Higher Education is through June 2020. NDUS spokeswoman Billie Jo Lorius said the North Dakota University System has not received a resignation letter. The board has not taken any action on the matter.

Could he stay at UND?

As talks swirl in Colorado about whether Kennedy is right for the job, local officials say it would be hard for him to return to UND at this point.

“That depends on him, but it would be tough,” Schafer said. “... I don’t know if he has to weld some handcuffs to the flagpole out in front of Twamley (Hall) and say ‘I’m here to stay,’ or if he makes some kind of five-year, written-in-blood commitment, I don’t know. But I think it would be very hard for him to come back now and operate well at the university.”

Poolman said he thinks it would be hard for Kennedy to return to UND after the comments made to the Daily Camera.

“I think he threw critics and supporters both under the bus to claim that there was some sort of sexism or racism involved in the critique of that poor decision, and it’s just not factual,” Poolman said. “And what I told him was, ‘If you’re going to leave, leave gracefully.’”

Poolman said he is concerned Kennedy “does not want to be here” amid the job searches, but he has faith the university will move forward — with or without Kennedy.

“The institution has survived a number of transitions and will survive and thrive in this one, as well,” he said. “UND is bigger than any one person.”

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