GRAND FORKS -- It’s been nearly a year since Joshua Wynne took over as the leader of North Dakota’s largest university.
It was a year that started with doubts and worries that soon turned to focus and stability. It was a year in which new doubts and new worries then arose amid a global crisis.
The outgoing student body president and leaders in North Dakota University System say there couldn’t have been a better person to serve as temporary leader at UND.
“He was really what UND needed over the past year,” said Gracie Lian, outgoing student body president. “He's done an incredible job of making sure that UND is headed in the right direction.”
On Monday, June 1, Wynne will pass the leadership baton to incoming UND President Andrew Armacost, who temporarily will lead the campus remotely from Colorado due to the ongoing pandemic that shuttered the school more than two months ago.
Lian said there was nervousness and doubt on campus before Wynne took the helm.
Wynne, while still serving as dean of the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences, stepped in as interim president during an uncertain time at UND. Wynne’s predecessor, Mark Kennedy, had left the university after nearly three years that were filled with budget cuts and other controversies. Morale was low.
But Wynne helped “turn things around” at UND, Lian said. Morale was higher and UND was beginning to feel like a community that faculty, staff and students were proud of.
Wynne said he’s proud that he and his team were able to stabilize the campus and “focus on the future.” He described it as one of the high points of his time as interim president.
“Things did settle down and that was my major goal going into it,” he said.
But he also served as the campus leader through another uncertain time: the global coronavirus pandemic.
With Wynne’s medical knowledge as a doctor and his background in public health, University Senate Chair Jeff VanLooy said Wynne had the knowledge and insight to lead the campus through the pandemic.
“We couldn't have asked for a better leader at the time,” VanLooy said. “It was perfect conditions for a not-so-perfect situation.”
While UND faced challenges and some hiccups as the university made the switch to remote learning, Wynne said he was pleased to see how the students, staff and faculty came together during an unprecedented time.
“People really came together in these very trying times and made it successful,” he said.
But there will be more challenges to come in the next months and years, whether they be financial, educational or otherwise. Wynne said the pandemic and the university’s response serves as a bit of a “wake-up call that the methods of education are evolving,” as are the way the university delivers its services to students.
“It really did make very concrete the need, or the reminder, that we need to innovate and change as we move forward,” he said. “So I think what we're going to do is we're going to take some of the lessons learned over the last few months and apply them going forward.”
Nick Hacker, chairman of the State Board of Higher Education, said it can be hard to remember a time before the pandemic, but he noted Wynne’s leadership was strong on campus before COVID-19.
"It's so easy for us to forget about the successes of the things going on at UND under his leadership before the pandemic,” he said. “It seems it's hard for people to remember what life was like three months ago. He just did a phenomenal job of instilling confidence in the entire institution, maintaining and improving morale, being engaged for faculty and staff in that process.”
Wynne says another high point of his time leading the university was working with Armacost, especially throughout the pandemic. Armacost was a part of every discussion as the campus tries to figure its way forward in this uncertain time.
“My respect for him and admiration has grown during this transition period, obviously intensified by the COVID dilemma,” Wynne said. “I am very happy that he is the new president of UND.”
Wynne said Armacost “shows the intelligence sensitivity, insight, willingness to learn that I think is going to stand UND and the community and North Dakota in very good stead.”
Armacost said Wynne has been a “great asset” as he prepares to transition into the presidency. Armacost said he and Wynne speak two or three times a day on a variety of topics, including the long-term and near-term future of UND.
“He’s been a great adviser, a great mentor and a great leader,” Armacost said of Wynne, adding they’ve also developed a friendship through the process.
As Wynne closes out his time as leader of UND, he will soon transition into another dual role. While carrying on his duties as dean of the medical school and as vice president for health affairs at UND, Wynne also will be heading up a “smart restart” task force to assist colleges and universities in the state to begin the process of getting back to campus this fall.
Additionally, Gov. Doug Burgum this week appointed Wynne to be the state’s chief health strategist. In this role, Wynne will work within the North Dakota Department of Health to create a strategy for developing a “world-class public health enterprise” in partnership with the North Dakota University System, local public health entities, the private sector and local, state, federal and tribal governments.
Wynne is perfect for the role, said North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott. He said Wynne was already a “go-to” person, not only for UND but for the entire system as the pandemic hit. Now he’s that person for the state.
“I just want to thank him for being willing to continue to chair this task force on restarting (the university system) plus helping the governor out as they restructure the health department,” Hagerott said.