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Florida interview raises questions of Kennedy's future at UND

UND President Mark Kennedy Submitted photo

GRAND FORKS—University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy could soon be shipping out of North Dakota if this week goes his way.

The president, who took office in summer 2016, will appear Wednesday at the University of Central Florida for a final interview for a shot to serve as president of the southern campus of about 66,000 students. Kennedy has been clear that he'll accept the job at UCF if it's offered to him and, if not, he's said he'd happily continue his duties at UND. But now that he's dipped his toe in warmer waters, how effective can Kennedy be in leading the North Dakota campus?

"He's a lame duck whether he accepts the position or not," said Eric Murphy, UND associate professor. Murphy, a former president of the statewide Council for College Faculties, was on the State Board of Higher Education as faculty representative when the board hired Kennedy.

Now that Kennedy has embarked on another hiring process less than two years later, Murphy thinks he's compromised his ability to sell his vision on campus.

"I don't see how anyone can see it any other way," he said. "I think it'll lend to a less stable environment no matter what he does."

Murphy said he assumed Kennedy would be a "three-to-five-year president" whose experience in the business world could be leveraged to benefit the university. The second point of that assessment has panned out in certain ways, Murphy said—the first has been upended by the Feb. 15 news that Kennedy had applied to the top office at UCF.

To Murphy, the application wasn't entirely unheralded. He believes there were some early signs that Kennedy "might not be all-in" for UND, pointing specifically to the president missing graduation ceremonies to attend family events.

But tip-offs aside, the interviews in Florida that Kennedy said were offered after an aggressive headhunting process solidify a lingering question that Murphy said will undermine the president's effectiveness as a leader if he is to remain on the UND campus.

"Is he really, fully engaged in being a leader at UND?" Murphy asked. "Or is he really engaged in 'What's my next step and how do I get there?' "

Though Murphy is clear that he thinks Kennedy has set himself to doing much of what he promised to the SBHE in his interview process, he's also quick to answer his own question.

"The simple reality of it is this," he said, "if (Kennedy) was fully engaged at UND, he would have said 'You know what, sounds like a great opportunity, but I'm here.' ... At end of day, he's the one who chose to say yes."

Kennedy is scheduled to return this week to the UCF campus for the last stage of the interview process there, during which he'll sit for an open forum at 11 a.m. Eastern time. The university's trustees plan to make their final decision Friday.

In his cover letter submitted as part of the UCF application, Kennedy wrote it would "take a lot" to get him to leave UND but that the Florida university is "among fewer than a handful of positions" that could "convince me to do so."

He wrote that his approach to leading UCF would be based in engaging with campus to gather input on the direction of the university, stressing his efforts at UND to create and launch a broad strategic plan. Kennedy has said he believes the execution of that plan would continue even if he were to leave campus, thanks to the supervision of appointed "captains."

Nancy Vogeltanz-Holm, UND professor of behavioral science, hopes that would be the case. She serves as the elected chair of the University Senate and was surprised to hear of Kennedy's application to leave Grand Forks. She finds the prospect concerning, adding that her view of the president is overwhelmingly positive.

Still, Vogeltanz-Holm says nobody has yet approached her in her role as head of the representative group to talk about the developments in Kennedy's job hunt.

Speaking for herself, she doesn't think the president's interviews at UCF will interfere with the implementation of the strategic plan.

"If he's here, we're going to have progress, it's going to be good," she said. "If he's not here, I don't think it will be as good."

Other faculty, such as Jack Russell Weinstein, aren't convinced.

Weinstein, a UND Chester Fritz distinguished professor of philosophy, believes Kennedy will be able to continue leading the university if that's what his future holds. However, in saying that, Weinstein fit the president into what he sees as a wider pattern among UND administrators of using the university as a stepping stone to bigger jobs elsewhere. Weinstein has been outspoken on campus issues in the past and attributes many of the difficulties at the university to such "transient administrators" who launch initiatives to build their resumes before setting off for greener pastures. As a result, he added, the faculty and staff who are ultimately the ones "committed to the long-term project that is UND" are left to cope as leaders depart.

"People like President Kennedy, they are tornadoes," Weinstein said, "and it's those of us without resources or political power who have to rebuild when they are gone."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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