What is it about higher education muckety-mucks leaving North Dakota and blaming their problems on racism?
Is it them? Or is it North Dakota?
Mark Kennedy, who will leave his job as University of North Dakota president to take a similar position at the University of Colorado, told a Colorado newspaper that the controversy over him attempting to have his chief of staff work remotely was racially motivated. And sexist. And regional, too.
"I fear that part of the reason that that article got as much attention as it did is some people couldn't understand how a young African-American woman from the South could be as qualified and worthy" to do the job as others, Kennedy told the Boulder Daily Camera. "I'm quite confident it is about more than remote working."
Take it from somebody who sees and hears an awful lot of racial bias wherever I go, from New York City to North Dakota, the case of Kennedy's chief of staff Angelique Foster was not about the fact she's African-American. It was about Kennedy's tone-deafness and arrogance.
Two traits, by the way, that perfectly define Kennedy's time at UND. This was a guy, after all, who said he preferred to be called "The Honorable" because he'd earned the title by serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota.
Kennedy is also a guy who tried to hire a party planner for his wife using UND dollars, another idea that was roundly criticized before he backed down. The guy never learned.
Kennedy's brief tenure in North Dakota has been marked by severe cuts to the university and missteps involving the school's most important donor family, the state Legislature, the athletic department and staffing.
The only question from those who monitor higher education in North Dakota is this: Who was the bigger unlikable flop, Kennedy or former system chancellor Hamid Shirvani? The chancellor was the lesser human being, leaving a trail of sexual harassment stench behind him wherever he went, but Grand Forks and UND fans aren't mourning Kennedy's departure.
Interestingly, Shirvani blamed his problems in North Dakota on racism, too. His troubles were always somebody else's fault, never of his own doing.
That trait seems to be one Kennedy shares with him.
The most recent controversy occurred in February and involved Kennedy trying to keep Foster, his longtime associate and chief of staff, in her UND job while she worked remotely from Texas.
The Grand Forks Herald did the bulk of the reporting on the kerfuffle, which clearly angered Kennedy. He's a conservative Republican — he was elected to the House in Michele Bachmann's district in Minnesota and was viewed as a rising star before getting hammered by Amy Klobuchar in the 2006 U.S. Senate election — and the media are always the enemy.
Foster was part of Kennedy's staff since his first day at UND on July 1, 2016. They worked together since 2012 when Kennedy was working at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., according to the Herald.
Foster announced late last year she would be leaving UND, but then chose to stay in her job when it was decided she could work remotely and commute once a month to North Dakota. She was supposed to receive $114,000 in annual salary plus up to $25,000 a year for travel expenses.
"She’s just been fantastic with our strategic plan implementation and any number of major strategic initiatives that we’ve had here at UND, so being able to keep her on board in some way, shape or form is just a major win for the university,” university spokesman David Dodds told the Herald when questioned about Foster's working arrangement.
But North Dakota Board of Higher Education member Dan Traynor criticized the move and questioned whether Kennedy violated board policy.
"I reject the notion that the chief of staff position can be properly performed remotely for any extended arrangement," Traynor said, according to the Herald. "A chief with no staff is no chief of staff."
North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott also objected and Kennedy changed course. Kennedy then said that Foster would be on campus through April and then would stay on for up to six months after that.
Traynor spoke for many North Dakotans when he said he found it unlikely that Kennedy "cannot find one person with the capability and qualifications of a chief of staff" in the state. UND, after all, has a medical school and law school.
It's a fair question, even if the state sometimes gets a deserved reputation for being overly insular and provincial. In this case, the blowback against Kennedy was justified.
And it was not racial, sexist or regional. It was common sense.
Congratulations, Colorado. You're getting a beauty. Just make sure to call him The Honorable, hire a good party planner for his wife and keep the big-money donors away from him. Do that and you'll love the hire.