GRAND FORKS — In what likely will be a contentious vote, the University of Colorado Board of Regents will decide Thursday, May 2, whether to name Mark Kennedy as the University of Colorado’s next president.
Controversy and protests have surrounded Kennedy’s nomination as the sole finalist for the position since nearly the beginning. Many in Colorado have opposed the board’s decision to name just one finalist, while others have taken issue with Kennedy’s congressional voting record or comments he has made while touring the system campuses.
If named to the position, Kennedy, who has been president at UND since 2016, would oversee CU’s four campuses in Aurora, Boulder, Colorado Springs and Denver.
CU Board of Regents chair Sue Sharkley and vice chair Jack Kroll have defended the search process, noting the board spent several hours with each candidate.
“We believe now what we did then – (Kennedy’s) skills and experience in business, government and higher education would make him a great president of the University of Colorado,” the pair said in an April statement.
It has been a tumultuous process, both in Colorado and North Dakota. And it may be a sign of times to come for all presidential searches, as other universities have seen similar protests in recent months.
The University of South Carolina Board of Trustees recently announced it would reopen its presidential search after the board received backlash from students and faculty over its search process.
USC announced four finalists for the president’s position on April 17. However, by the end of the month, the Board of Trustees announced it would reopen the search.
Protesters were upset that the lead candidate for the job, retired Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, had — according to detractors — lacked the necessary experience and personal skills to lead the University of South Carolina, the Post and Courier reported.
Caslen was the only candidate to have experience leading a university at a high level, at the University of Central Florida. He also is a former superintendent of the U.S. military academy at West Point.
The three other finalists each had many years of higher education experience but lacked top-level executive experience, according to the Post and Courier.
“The vetting process was underwhelming,” South Carolina House Majority Leader Gary Simrill said.
In March, the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees announced it would not renew the contract of President Laurie Nichols, the Laramie Boomerang reported. It’s the fourth time in six years the university will be searching for a new leader.
Nichols said she was “very surprised” by the decision, the Boomerang reported.
The move also came as a surprise to faculty and staff members on campus, the Boomerang reported.
In Oklahoma there have been calls for President Jim Gallogly to resign, the Oklahoman reported. Gallogly became president at the university in July, and his presidency has been marred with controversy.
In nearly all of these cases, the search process to appoint new campus leaders has come under fire. Boards have been accused of not fully vetting their candidates; others have accused boards of using “secretive” processes to name finalists.
Judith Wilde, chief operating officer and professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, is one of just a handful of people in the nation who study higher education presidential search processes.
Wilde said 50 years ago, just 2% of presidential searches were done with a search firm. Today, that number is 92%.
As more high-level CEOs and business people serve on various higher education boards across the country, the increase in search firm use also continues to go up, Wilde said. Large companies have used search firms to hire people for years, Wilde said, so it seems logical that boards populated by business people would employ search firms in the higher ed process.
“In our view, that means the board is actually outsourcing what is arguably the most important thing they do in the entire time they serve on the board, which is to hire a new president,” she said.
The search firm process also can be considered secretive at times, Wilde said. That can prompt controversy.
Wilde said Colorado’s sunshine law, which requires that a nominee’s name be made public for at least 14 days before a vote, also is an important factor. Florida, Texas and Oklahoma also have these laws.
Oftentimes in those states, the board only releases one finalist’s name, which can envelop the process in controversy. That happened in Colorado with Kennedy.
“What they’re doing is following the letter of the law,” she said. “However, it is not following either the intent or the spirit of the law. (The spirit of the law) is to have multiple candidates be put forward that people can talk about and vet on their own before that vote.”
Former CU regent Steve Bosley, who served on the Colorado board for 12 years, said universities across the country name sole finalists because revealing candidates’ names can impact the candidates’ current jobs.
Bosley also said it’s not the job of the people to pick a university president. That responsibility, he said, lies solely with the board.
Regardless if he gets the job in Colorado, Kennedy is likely to face future challenges in North Dakota.
Last month, North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott wrote a letter to Kennedy saying he had accepted Kennedy’s “de facto” resignation, but Kennedy has yet to formally resign from UND.
State Board of Higher Education member Dan Traynor said he believes Kennedy “has resigned his position of president of the University of North Dakota effective June 15, 2019.”
There is still more than a year remaining on Kennedy’s contract, and the State Board of Higher Education’s members have yet to discuss how they’ll handle the agreement going forward.
Traynor, however, wants Kennedy to be named president in Colorado.
“I think we all hope that President Kennedy gets the job in Colorado,” Traynor said. “It will make life a lot simpler, for him and for the university system.”