GRAND FORKS – During his interview with the State Board of Higher Education Tuesday for the job of UND president, Mark Kennedy joked that he loves spending time in coffee shops meeting people so much he was thinking about writing a book on the subject.
"That is my approach," he said. "You'll be sick and tired of seeing me because I will be spending very little time in my office, and I won't just be on my campus, I'll be around the state."
After two hours of deliberation, the board unanimously chose Kennedy to be UND's next president, replacing Ed Schafer who is serving as interim president through June.
"I do believe this is already the best school in a 300-mile radius and my focus is brightening that star even more," Kennedy said.
Kennedy is a former U.S. representative from Minnesota and the director of the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.
SBHE Chairwoman Kathleen Neset said while the other two finalists, Minot State University President Steven Shirley and University of Toledo Dean of Engineering Nagi Naganathan were both qualified, the board chose Kennedy because they felt he could take UND to the next level.
"It was 'who was better than the best,' " she said.
Kennedy described himself as a very collaborative leader who, after taking over at UND, would allow others to do their jobs. He also wants to start "pancakes with the president" and "coffee with Kennedy" programs to create informal opportunities to find out how UND can improve while sharing its successes.
"I love to just connect with people," he said. "I'm expecting to spend some time in the student cafeteria just sitting at a random table, talking to students as well as walking the halls of the various departments at the university."
Kennedy said in his first 90 days on the job he hopes to meet faculty, staff, legislators, alumni and other on- and off-campus stakeholders as well as constituents from the 10 other North Dakota University System schools before working on a strategic plan for UND.
"You're faced with a decision of being the biggest or the best," Kennedy said " My goal is to have UND be the best."
Meet the president
Kennedy earned a master's degree in business administration from the University of Michigan. As the only finalist without a terminal degree, he said a presidency is more about selling a university's vision than having a Ph.D.
Having served as a Republican U.S. congressman from 2001 to 2007, Kennedy said he would use his political experience for the betterment of UND.
Kennedy said he brings business, academic and engagement skills to the university, having held a top position at Macy's and working in his current role at George Washington University.
"In a public university you need to engage, get not only the university community excited about a vision but sell that vision across the state and connect with voters and legislators across the state," he said.
Kennedy also noted he would be accessible to students and a collaborative member of the NDUS. When asked his position on more stringent admission standards, Kennedy noted a goal set by former UND President Robert Kelley of increasing enrollment by 1,000 students conflicts with NDUS goals of improving retention and graduation rates.
"We need to make sure we're attracting the best and the brightest but it shouldn't be UND's role to attract every student in the state," he said.
As the university is facing budget cuts, Kennedy said he would do what Schafer is doing now and identify priorities using input from stakeholders.
"You can't necessarily respond to everything you need to hear, but you hear it," he said.
Kennedy was chosen through a search process that began in August 2015 and throughout the interview process he stressed his ties to the region as a fourth-generation Minnesotan and third generation of his family to live in North Dakota. His wife Debbie, a North Dakota State University graduate, also has ties to the area.
"Our 35 years of marriage as true partners is proof I have experience collaborating with NDSU," Kennedy said, causing board members to laugh.
Kennedy's contract has yet to be negotiated, and he is expected to take over at UND July 1.