Andrew Armacost’s first year as president of the University of North Dakota wasn’t exactly typical.
As president, Armacost dealt with a number of topics throughout the year, including diversity, equity and inclusion issues on campus, a legislative session and making connections with faculty, staff and students virtually due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“Leadership is a test every day, whether it's a global pandemic, or some other issue that arises on campus,” he said. “You don't get chosen for a position like this to have photo ops every day and just enjoy the easy, fun stuff. It's to lead the campus, to look out and create vision. It's also to respond to crises.”
Reflecting on the last year in a recent interview, Armacost said he’s learned much about “the resiliency of our campus and the great leadership that exists” there.
The campus had been dealing with an influx in leadership at the highest level for some time before Armacost stepped into the role fully. Armacost is the fifth president in six years on campus, including interim presidents.
Former UND President Mark Kennedy stayed at the university for about three years before he left North Dakota to become president of the University of Colorado system after also being named a finalist for the president’s position at another university. Kennedy’s departure left campus morale low.
But since Armacost has stepped into the presidency, it’s been like a “breath of fresh air” for faculty and staff, University Senate Chair Liz Legerski said.
Although faculty and staff couldn’t fully interact in person with Armacost due to the pandemic, she said Armacost has been inclusive of faculty and staff voices on a variety of issues. She said he also has been an “extremely approachable person.”
“We got the kind of president he advertised to be — open and available,” she said. “I’m optimistic.”
Outgoing student body President Matthew Ternus said Armacost did what he could to connect with students and the community on a variety of topics, locally and nationally.
“President Armacost has established himself and his leadership on campus and with those that he's surrounded himself with a sense of stability,” Ternus said, noting the campus leadership began to stabilize during the transition period between interim President Joshua Wynne and Armacost. “Campus morale within the student body has increased significantly over the last year or two years and I imagine that will continue for years to come.”
Armacost said he felt there was a “yearning” for leadership in the president’s role, adding that filling that void while also leading a campus virtually was one of his biggest challenges of the last year.
“One of the most important challenges was to just reassure people about the stability of leadership and that we're going to craft a vision moving forward together,” he said.
Armacost worked part-time for UND for about six months during the transition period, then fully stepped into the presidency last June in the middle of the pandemic.
By the time the school year rolled around at the end of August, cases had been soaring in Grand Forks and on campus. The cases were so bad the university had to decide what the best course of action was: staying open or moving classes online for a time. Ultimately, UND stayed open throughout the school year.
While that was a test of his leadership, Armacost said it also showed the leadership of others in the campus community.
“I was fortunate to come into a team that really operated well together that had great vision,” he said.
Legerski said she and other faculty members appreciated the townhall forums university leadership held during the pandemic and hopes those type of discussions can continue.
Another big part of Armacost’s first year has been discussions around diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. Within weeks of being president and shortly following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Armacost set out to create a task force on diversity, equity and inclusion. The task force met during the fall semester and returned a 30-page report on how UND can improve on inclusivity on campus.
In October, Armacost made the decision to remove freshman Mitchell Miller from the UND hockey team after an in-depth report by the Arizona Republic detailing Miller's admitted assault, bullying and racial abuse of a Black, developmentally disabled classmate in eighth grade in Sylvania, Ohio.
At the time, Armacost said it was his decision, made in consultation with others. When asked at that time why the decision ultimately was left to him, Armacost said, "because I'm the president."
Diversity, equity and inclusion continue to be important to Armacost. But he’s privately had some pushback.
“I received some advice to go patiently on diversity, equity and inclusion just because that can be, as we see nationally, a polarizing discussion,” he said. “I said I recognize the polarization. But I'm making a long-term commitment to every member of the campus.”
Part of that long-term commitment means starting and then pushing through positive changes on campus, Armacost said, adding he wants to have one-on-one conversations about the long-term vision of the campus, even if those conversations are difficult at times.
“I think that really reassures people that, yes, this guy is serious about being here, he's serious about making a positive difference on the campus in the long run,” he said.
Legerski noted conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion can be challenging, but added “messaging matters” in order to keep discussions from becoming divisive. She said Armacost’s leadership thus far has been “thoughtful” and “intentional.”
As his second year begins, Armacost said the campus is spending time focusing not only on academic curriculum, but also space-related research. It's an area he hopes to see grow in the future.
He also hopes the campus will return to some form of normal, with in-person interactions. He and his wife, Kathy, will be traveling across North Dakota this summer as part of a "Meet the Armacosts" tour, during which the two will meet in person with the public and other campus stakeholders.
“I'm eager to see kind of the hustle and bustle of the campus and activities and people coming to euphonium concerts over at Hughes, or events out in the park or on the quad,” he said. “It's going to be really nice to be back to normal.”