It’s fitting that Mark Kennedy can’t even manage a graceful exit from his perch as president of the University of North Dakota.
News broke last week that Kennedy was the sole finalist for the presidency of the University of Colorado system. Kennedy, whose smugness is one of his defining qualities, promptly put out a statement saying he was sorry to be leaving UND after three years.
That tender note came even though a formal selection was still two weeks into the future. When news of Kennedy’s rocky tenure at UND started to trickle into Colorado, along with discomfort by some over his voting record as a Minnesota congressman, Kennedy’s new job was looking a bit tenuous — leading him to sheepishly issue a revised statement saying it would be “presumptuous to say it’s a done deal” and “I maybe should have put ‘we would be sorry to leave UND.’”
UND and its supporters won’t be sorry to see Kennedy leave. His time as president has been dominated by one public relations disaster after another. Most significantly, his quarrel with a major benefactor, the daughter of Ralph Engelstad, whose generosity built the campus’s impressive hockey arena, erupted into public view.
The Engelstad family said it would make no further donations as long as Kennedy was president. The job of a university president today is largely one of promoting the institution, building support among important constituencies, and raising money.
In those important roles, Kennedy’s performance has been abysmal. He has shown himself to be tone deaf in dealing with the public and with legislators.
Just as bad, he has displayed poor judgment. A notable example is his decision to allow his choice for an absentee chief of staff who would be allowed to live in Texas and work remotely or commute to campus, a position with a salary of $114,000 and a travel allowance of up to $25,000.
Kennedy reversed himself after public outrage. Similarly, he announced plans to sell the campus golf course, a decision he changed after the family complained.
There will be more smiles than sad faces once Kennedy is gone. If the Colorado job never materializes, he shouldn’t be allowed to stay. He clearly wants to move on, and so should UND.
This is a huge opportunity for UND and the State Board of Higher Education. We hope they take the fiasco of Kennedy’s selection as a learning opportunity.
There’s been a tendency at UND to select presidents who impress the faculty. The result has been a string of presidents whose performance has been lackluster.
UND’s most successful president by far in memory was Tom Clifford, a lawyer with a master’s in business administration — but not a doctorate. Clifford knew and understood UND, its students, faculty and supporters.
He was an active and successful fundraiser, especially with the UND Aerospace Foundation, which supports its world-class aviation program.
Clifford was unique. But his successful presidency serves as an important reminder that UND’s president should be in touch with the culture of the university and the state. In many ways, Kennedy is a cautionary example of what a UND president should not be.
UND and North Dakota deserve better.