FARGO — Students are the most important component in higher education. Students are the customers. They pay an ever-increasing tuition investment in our public colleges and universities. Taxpayers pay a healthy sum, too. For some odd reason, these important stakeholders can seem forgotten amid the squabbles over funding priorities or the latest headline-grabbing controversy. Our two flagship public universities have had more than their fair share of drama over the last few years. A reboot is welcome.

I have been impressed with the University of North Dakota’s new president. Andy Armacost has been a leader in everything he has done. Before he was at UND, he was Gen. Armacost. He was dean of faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy. With more than 30 years on active duty and 20 years at the Academy, Armacost served in the rank of brigadier general as the chief academic officer for this nationally ranked institution. Their $50 million in annual sponsored research was top in the nation for undergraduate schools, an important aspiration for UND.

Armacost has been on the job for just 13 months. His first year has been notable for his obvious concern for students first. You can’t fake that. Many higher education leaders talk about being student-focused, but their actions don’t match their words. Andy and his wife, Kathy, are touring the state meeting UND alumni and friends and taking advantage of the post-COVID era to build relationships. I had the pleasure of attending a recent event at the Dakota Medical Foundation in Fargo when Andy shared his leadership philosophy:

“Love your people. (Take care of them. Allow them to grow and provide them the support they need to be successful). Always remember that we are here for our students. Treat everyone with dignity, respect and kindness. There’s always something to learn. (Push-ups for the brain … create habits of lifelong learning. The more you learn, the more humble that you should become. Appreciate the opinions, beliefs and experiences of others. Remember that everyone is great at something. Our job is to foster that sense in every student. Success begets success.”

Those are simple but profound tenants of a good leader. His humble, gentle style reminds me a lot of the late Tom Clifford, the iconic transformational president at UND. Every president since has been measured against that high bar. As a former student-athlete and campus leader at Northwestern University, with a master's and doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he has the education and the experience to be a university president. But you can’t teach leadership. Leaders are born and it starts with knowing your customer and loving your people.

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The Armacosts will be traveling throughout North Dakota in the coming weeks. I’d encourage every stakeholder from students to alumni, friends and community leaders to meet the 13th president of the University of North Dakota.

Stops are planned Tuesday, July 20, in Bismarck, hosted by Chad and Stacy Wachter; Wednesday, July 21, in Dickinson; Tuesday, July 27, in Watford City, N.D., hosted by Steve and Gretchen Stenehjem; and Wednesday, July 28, in Williston, N.D., hosted by Pat and Tammy Sogard.

Find more details at UNDAlumni.org.

Scott Hennen hosts the statewide radio program “What’s On Your Mind?” On AM 1100 “The Flag”, KFYR AM 550, AM 1090 KTGO “The Flag” and AM 1460 KLTC. Email him at ScottH@FlagFamily.com