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UND President Mark Kennedy to stay at UND

UND President Mark Kennedy

GRAND FORKS -- University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy’s hunt for a new job has ended unsuccessfully. For now, he’ll be staying in Grand Forks.

The University of Central Florida Board of Trustees decided Friday against choosing Kennedy to be their next president, instead selecting internal candidate Dale Whittaker, UCF provost, to lead the Orlando institution of about 66,000 students.

Kennedy was one of four finalists to sit for an interview with trustees ahead of an afternoon meeting to finalize their presidential search. He had been in the running to replace longtime UCF President John Hitt since announcing in mid-February that he’d applied for the job.

Kennedy has served in North Dakota for less than two years.

“I acknowledge the anxiety that my pursuit of the role as President of the University of Central Florida (UCF) caused many in the University of North Dakota Community,” he said in a Friday statement. “As one of the largest and best universities in the nation, UCF represented a rare opportunity which I felt compelled to respond to their invitation to pursue.”

Kennedy ended his statement by reaffirming his commitment to UND.

It’s unclear how campus will accept that. UND faculty member Eric Murphy tagged Kennedy on Monday as a “lame duck” whose foray into the job hunt so early in his tenure revealed a lack of commitment to campus, appealing as UCF might be.

Murphy served as the faculty representative on the North Dakota Board of Higher Education when the governing body hired Kennedy in 2016. He hadn’t anticipated the relatively new hire to begin yet another interview process quite so soon.

“I think it'll lend to a less stable environment no matter what he does,” Murphy said.

Ultimately, Kennedy’s diverse career -- chiefly one made in business and politics -- was a double-edged sword for his UCF candidacy. Trustees liked that he had served in high-level executive positions in the business world, taking that as a positive for a job in higher ed commonly compared to that of a CEO. However, Kennedy’s time in Congress as a Republican brought what the UCF search team ultimately saw as an unnecessary level of risk. The former Minnesota congressman’s votes against same-sex marriage in particular met controversy in a survey of the constituency base of the Orlando campus.

In that survey, UCF faculty, staff, students and alumni weighed in on each of the four finalist candidates, providing what they felt were their strengths and weaknesses.

Kennedy seemed to attract a more polarizing opinion than the others, with respondents either drawn to his nontraditional background or repelled by it, describing him alternatively as “egocentric” or a “true leader.”  

That question of background also included Kennedy’s education. Unlike many institutional leaders in higher ed, he doesn’t have a Ph.D., an attainment that has long served as a gatekeeper for academic administration. That fact was brought up throughout his candidacy as a negative, with a common rationale being that it was a turn-off for university faculty.

Still, trustees were impressed by Kennedy’s leadership in what one described as a “funding disaster” at UND. And, when viewed in abstract, Kennedy’s time in Congress was also viewed as a positive for those who believed his political skills could come in handy at at time when higher education is increasingly fighting for public dollars.

While there will be some at UND who question Kennedy’s return to Grand Forks, others will welcome him back with relish. The president quoted throughout his UCF interviews a set of glowing remarks made by current University Senate Chair Nancy Vogeltanz-Holm for a 2017 Person of the Year story that highlighted Kennedy’s presence in the news cycle.

Vogeltanz-Holm, a great supporter of Kennedy, emailed him on Feb. 26 to acknowledge his campus announcement of intent to go to UCF. Though she wrote she was a “bit rocked” by the news, she was “not at all surprised you were a finalist” as the Orlando trustees “would be crazy not to hire you.”

“But I nonetheless hope they do not since I am sure you will have future (opportunities) for great president jobs -- all better than UCF!” Vogeltanz-Holm wrote. “If they foolishly turn you down at UCF, I am hoping you can convince your ND bosses to give you an extended contract so we can all feel secure in having you around long enough to move the needle of progress here.”

It’s not yet clear if the State Board of Higher Education will make the president any sort of offer to extend his time in North Dakota, where he is paid $365,000.

But in Florida, the board that turned Kennedy down for a job worth $1.27 million summarized their opinions of him in perhaps less than 20 minutes. The conversation soon after moved beyond both he and fellow candidate Matthew Wilson, president of the University of Akron.

Trustees ended debate by weighing the merits of Whittaker against those of Suresh Garimella, an executive vice president at Purdue University, before making a confident, unanimous vote for their current provost.

Whittaker isn’t in office yet, though. He still needs to be approved by the Florida Board of Governors, the body that oversees the state’s higher ed system.

That approval will likely come by the end of the month -- by which point, Kennedy should once again be settled on campus far to the North.

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