FARGO — Mark Kennedy.

If you are a supporter of North Dakota State University, those two words should have you laying awake at night, staring at the ceiling. Nightmare fuel.

Because Mark Kennedy could happen in Fargo.

In fact, given the makeup of the North Dakota Board of Higher Education, something worse than Mark Kennedy could happen in Fargo.

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And that's bad for NDSU.

The board fired successful school president Dean Bresciani earlier this week, effective at the end of 2022, a surprise decision done mostly in secret executive session. The board and then-chairman Nick Hacker won't say why they fired Bresciani and Hacker lied by telling the media it was a "transition" and not a firing.

No, it was a firing.

The process was atrocious, something the board tried to slip past the public and treat like a mutual decision when in fact Hacker and Co. ran off Bresciani for reasons (or non-reasons) they refuse to own.

Which brings us to the Kennedy scenario.

Mark Kennedy was the president at the University of North Dakota from 2016-19, an arrogant bumbling dolt who had no qualifications to be a university president but did have ambition and the proper political credentials.

Kennedy was a former Republican congressman from Minnesota with a lengthy career in business. His higher ed experience was minimal. His extremely conservative bona fides, based on his voting record in Congress and public statements, were not.

And that is why he became UND's president. Politics. And why, a few years later, he became president of the University of Colorado's system. Politics. He was unqualified for both jobs, other than he had the proper political leanings that aligned with those doing the hiring. Kennedy left both jobs under a cloud, although he did walk away from Colorado with a $1.3 million buyout.

It's good to fail upward, apparently.

The line on Kennedy's successor at UND, Andrew Armacost, is not yet fully written. He appears thus far to better than Kennedy, which is akin to being better than a boil.

NDSU boosters and Fargo leaders need to make sure their school doesn't get the Mark Kennedy treatment from the higher ed board. They need to make sure a partisan board doesn't hire an unqualifed lackey based simply on right-wing qualifications.

Don't scoff. There are current higher ed board members who believe Bresciani, a staunch Republican, is too liberal. Danita Bye of Stanley, appointed by Gov. Doug Burgum, has QAnon conspiracy tendencies and promoted pillow-maker Mike Lindell's conspiracy theory video claiming the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

These are the people in charge of hiring a president for NDSU.

It's incumbent upon the high-rollers who support NDSU — most of whom are conservative themselves, in some cases extremely so — to be actively engaged in the hiring process and make a concerted effort to make sure the school's next president is qualified, and more interested in academic success and growth than partisan politics.

It won't be easy.

There's likely never been a higher ed board less qualifed to choose a president, less interested in a transparent process and more interested in partisanship. Gov. Doug Burgum, who appoints board members, is disinterested in higher ed at best. At worst, he's hostile to it.

North Dakota has reached a point where many of its elected and appointed officials and citizens are at war with higher education, just like the conservative movement is across the nation. Higher ed is seen as untrustworthy, a liberal conspiracy against the right.

North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani, left, and former University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy meet with The Forum Editorial Board to make the case for more legislative funding for research Sept. 12, 2018, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / The Forum
North Dakota State University President Dean Bresciani, left, and former University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy meet with The Forum Editorial Board to make the case for more legislative funding for research Sept. 12, 2018, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / The Forum

"This broad swell has overtaken us in North Dakota, especially with the installation of the current state regime," NDSU professor Tom Isern wrote in an essay a couple of years ago, and reposted to social media in the wake of Bresciani's firing. "It has been lapping at the legislature and seeping into the state board of higher education during recent years, but now it has flooded the executive branch. At both the federal and state levels now we have regimes that are openly hostile to higher learning. Their message is, we don't need that anymore."

The pool of candidates interested in replacing Bresciani will be telling. Publicly, only the names of the finalists will be released after a change in state law was made to protect applicants from being outed.

But the pool when Kennedy was hired at UND in 2016 was extremely shallow, so much so that only two sitting presidents applied and one of them was recruited to apply for the position after the initial applications came in.

With news of Bresciani's firing and the circumstances behind it readily available on the internet, will top candidates shut off their laptops and say, "No thanks" to NDSU's job posting?

What highly qualified, independent-minded higher ed professional would want to work for this board in this atmosphere?

Unless, of course, they are willing to be wholly subservient. And if that's the case, why would NDSU big-wig boosters want them?

It's a pickle, one that was completely manufactured by the ham-handed manner in which Hacker and Co. handled Bresciani's firing and then lied about it.

NDSU and Fargo boosters have work ahead of them making sure highly qualified candidates know this is a good job, supported by people who care about the university.

Good luck. They'll need it.