It was early April and the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents hunkered down for a second day at Denver International Airport’s Westin Hotel interviewing prospects for the school’s next president.
The nine regents had been given thick packets about each of the six applicants who had made the short list. In them were their resumes, responses to a questionnaire, and background reports summarizing news accounts and controversies about them, if any, signaling potential red flags.
With help from a recruiting firm, the board’s lawyer, Patrick O’Rourke, had prepared the reports so regents would have the information they’d need to question each applicant and choose between them. It was his job, he says, to prevent any surprises.
The five Republicans and four Democrats would unanimously agree that afternoon on a lone finalist: University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy, 62, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota.
But in the ensuing weeks, revelations about Kennedy’s recent performance at UND and his conservative voting record more than a decade ago in Congress have triggered an uproar from students, faculty, alumni and donors. Regents now disagree on what they knew about his background, what they should have been told, and whether it’s relevant. Some say they have been blindsided by revelations that O’Rourke’s report omitted, and others say they chose Kennedy with their eyes wide open. The partisan divide on the nine-member board has split even further, with a Republican regent castigating his Democratic counterparts for backpedaling and feigning ignorance.
Two academics in Virginia had tried to warn CU regents against their “secret selection” process. Now that their advice has gone unheeded, those professors – who study public university hiring practices – say regents “have lost the trust of the (CU) community and perhaps the community at large.” In the meantime, former Sen. Mark Udall is calling on regents to reopen the selection process, as are hundreds of alumni who are blasting them for their “mind-boggling” lack of transparency and threatening to withhold future donations.
As the board prepares to cast final votes on Kennedy Thursday, it appears, to the frustration of many, that Colorado’s flagship university, one that worked for decades boosting its reputation for research and scholarship, fell short on both while searching for a new president.
Narrowing the field
The elected board that governs the University of Colorado is made up of members from each of the seven congressional districts, plus two “at large” members representing the whole state. The GOP has controlled it since the 1970s.
Bruce Benson, the former oil man who will retire from CU’s presidency in July, was a Republican gubernatorial nominee and chairman of Colorado’s Republican Party. He succeeded former Republican U.S. Sen. Hank Brown when Brown retired in 2008.
The university hired a national recruiting firm, Wheless Partners, to help fill a position that’s expected to pay between $750,000 and $1 million a year. The company received 160 applications, including one from former Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat who founded and directs the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University. It narrowed that list to 28 for CU’s presidential search advisory committee to review. That 17-person group whittled the names to 10 before sending regents its recommended short list of six in March.
One of them was a Colorado-based business person. Three were academics from out of state. And two, also from out of state, were former Republican politicians with recent experience running institutions of higher learning.
The board was intent on naming one finalist rather than two because, as CU spokesman Ken McConnellogue tells it, it’s tradition, at least with the last three presidents, for regents to unite around their pick. The university promised each applicant that their identity would be concealed unless he or she was chosen. That means that the regents, who so far have carried out search in closed-door executive sessions, are prohibited from discussing them, leaving the process shrouded in secrecy.
Each of the six applicants on the short list met with the regents for two hours in a conference room at the Westin. Four were interviewed on Wednesday, April 3, and two the morning of Thursday the 4th. Once the last interview, which was with Kennedy, ended, regents ate lunch together then took turns around the conference table saying what they liked and didn’t about all six.
Three people close to the process say the Republican majority clearly favored the two Republican politicos: Kennedy and a woman who held a high-ranking state office before moving on to higher education.
They say that applicant – whom The Independent won’t name without her permission – faced pointed questions about her political record, including her endorsement of a ban on same-sex marriage in her state. CU cites confidentiality in refusing to disclose the reports O’Rourke compiled on her and the other applicants, so it’s unclear whether his summary of her background mentioned her more moderate stances supporting abortion rights and funding for stem cell research, which CU conducts.
Kennedy, in comparison, has a far more conservative record from his three terms in Congress between 2001 and 2007. Twice, in 2004 and 2006, he sponsored bills seeking a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He also voted to:
- Deny funding for stem cell research
- Restrict abortion rights, funding for women’s reproductive health care, and family planning aid overseas
- Require K-12 students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school and allow school prayer during the War on Terror
- Allow electronic surveillance without a warrant
- End net neutrality
- Remove environmental protections for endangered species
O’Rourke says attorney-client privilege prevents him from disclosing which details about Kennedy’s background he shared with regents.
Regents say that Kennedy, in his interview, told them his views on same-sex marriage have “evolved” as times and public sentiment have changed, and as he came to know a gay couple personally.
But, by several accounts, his sponsorship of a constitutional gay marriage ban and other specifics about his voting record were not explicitly mentioned in his background report or during his interview. Nor was the fact that his controversial votes were a factor in the University of Central Florida’s decision last year not to hire him as its president.
For CU’s regents, Kennedy possesses the three qualities they’ve said they want in the person they hire to run the university and manage its $4.5 billion annual budget. He has political experience they hope will help secure favorable policies and funding from federal and state governments. He has led an institution of higher learning, albeit one a fraction of CU’s size without nearly the breadth of research programs or diversity. And he has experience in the business sector as an accountant who became director of finance for the former Pillsbury Company and a top executive at the corporation that now owns Macy’s.
Regents were also impressed by his polish, eloquence and eye contact.
“This guy could teach a Dale Carnegie course. He knows how to… work a room,” one of them says.
After two days cooped up in the Westin, the regents did not discuss the possibility of reconvening on a later date to give themselves time to consider the applicants they had just interviewed. Instead, they informally agreed to pick Kennedy as their sole finalist, then packed up to leave.
On their way to their cars, one of the Republican regents commented to one of the Democrats that the selection process had gone “faster than I expected.”
News of Kennedy’s finalist status broke early the next week in North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald, which pointed out that UND had said two months earlier, in February, that he had no interest in seeking another job.
Herald columnist Mike Jacobs had written after Kennedy’s failed bid for the University of Central Florida’s presidency last year that he earned a reputation as a “looker instead of a leader and a loyalist.” In that same column, Jacobs mocked Kennedy for suggesting when becoming UND president in 2016 that he should be referred to as “the honorable” because of his stint in Congress.
Word of Kennedy’s selection spread quickly in Colorado before CU’s legal and human resources staff had finished checking his references. The communications team scurried to push its announcement up by two days, to April 10. Once word was officially out, university rules required regents to allow at least 14 days of public comment before formally voting on his hiring.
The backlash was fast and furious.
CU scholars, researchers, adjunct professors, other faculty members and staffers, students and alumni immediately started voicing concerns about Kennedy on social media, on campus, in class, and on a portal the university created for public input. As of Monday morning, there were 2,812 submissions, summarized here.
“It’s difficult for me to believe that after months of searching Mark Kennedy was the best CU could come up with. He has shown himself to be hostile to shared governance and mediocre in almost every other respect. CU deserves much much better,” one commenter wrote.
“I am disappointed. How can an institute of higher education that demands excellence from students faculty and staff bring forward such a thoroughly and absolutely mediocre candidate?” wrote another.
Another post: “As one who has been trained in executive searches and questionnaire design I must say this instrument showed serious bias. Notice the fifth dot that discusses “expectations in most areas.” What if you have respondents who have been led to believe that the candidate fails in ALL areas? As an alum, a former dean, a long term donor and a long term faculty member serving three colleges on campus, this gentleman is fatally flawed in all categories you have listed. I urge the Regents to reopen the national search…”
“Absolutely the worst candidate for CU president. And I don’t blame him I just am shocked and utterly disappointed from the board of regents for whose salary I pay through my taxes. DO NOT APPOINT MARK KENNEDY as next CU president!!!!!!!!!!! Shame on you!” reads another comment.
Regents, for the record, are unpaid.
Some commenters supported Kennedy: “CU Regents don’t bend to the mob. Take this man as he has presented himself and don’t allow the CU system to paint a good man out to be a monster.”
But supporters appeared to be vastly outnumbered by critics. Overall, 129 commenters gave Kennedy an “Outstanding” ranking, while 1,035 said he would have “Difficulty in most areas.”
Regent Chance Hill, a Republican from the 5th Congressional District, has dismissed Kennedy’s detractors, whom he refers to as Far Leftists, and decried what he calls a “gauntlet of unreasonable attacks, inaccurate news headlines, and slanderous smears along with a fixation over a few votes (Kennedy) cast — out of more than 4,000 — during his six years in Congress.”
“With all of their purported progressive enlightenment and so-called open-mindedness, they cannot tolerate the notion of a Republican occasionally challenging their liberal college fiefdoms where people suffer real negative consequences if they dare challenge the Leftist orthodoxy that dominates campus culture,” Hill wrote on Monday.
With the help of the university’s public relations team, Kennedy penned an open letter to the CU community, saying he would be “happy to address” his past votes in Congress “as to how they would impact my actions and decisions as president. On some, the societal consensus has changed over the past decade-plus, as has my own thinking.”
He touted his work at UND “issuing an anti-discrimination and harassment policy covering sexual orientation and gender identity as strong as similar policies at CU,” and expanding recruitment of LGBTQ faculty and programs for LGBTQ students.
“Students, faculty, staff and members of our community will have my full support and respect no matter who they love or how they identify. I am committed to be a leader for all,” he wrote.
Some critics are skeptical.
“The idea that a mature person is going to shift his values that dramatically is very unlikely,” says Richard Jessor, who has taught behavioral psychology at CU for 68 years.
Gov. Jared Polis – who is gay and from Boulder – also chimed in, tweeting on April 18 that he would like to see a new candidate brought forward for the presidency who “unites the board.”
Kennedy, with his wife Debbie at his side, spent last week visiting with administrators, donors and faculty members, and holding public forums on each of the CU’s four campuses. At almost every stop, he spoke about his mother urging him each year on the first day of school to include the shy or new or funny looking kids on the playground and help make them feel comfortable. He talked about being the first boy in his family to go to college and about working his way up the corporate ladder. And, underscoring his appreciation for diversity and inclusion, he said repeatedly that “Life is a game of addition, not subtraction.”
In a meeting with CU’s Faculty Council on Monday, Council Chairwoman Joanne Addison questioned whether, as UND’s president, he signed the so-called “Pomona letter,” a 2016 manifesto that has united more than 700 college and university presidents in declaring it a “national necessity” and “moral imperative” to continue and expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Kennedy said he wasn’t familiar with the letter. “We at the University of North Dakota don’t have many, if any, DACA students,” he added, noting that “cultural sensibilities” in North Dakota are different than those in Colorado. Then he promised to strongly support DACA students if hired.
On Wednesday, audience members on CU’s Anschutz medical campus in Aurora asked about how stem cell research and teaching of abortion techniques in medical school might be affected under his presidency. One asked if their health care plan would no longer include the same reproductive choices. Kennedy, roaming the auditorium stage, assured them that nothing would change because he would “check my politics at the door.”
His tour culminated Friday with a forum at the Boulder campus’s Macky Auditorium, where he faced his angriest audience. Students and faculty booed and taunted him. Some yelled “Yeah, right” and “Bullshit” as he answered questions. Some held signs reading “Love trumps hate,” and “Go away.”
The Committee on Rights and Compensation, an independent graduate labor union at CU-Boulder, has opposed his selection. The Boulder Campus Staff Council wrote a scathing letter urging regents not to hire him. And a coalition of the CU’s distinguished professors – an elite group of its top scholars – signed a resolution expressing “grave concern about the quality and the qualifications of the Finalist for the position of President of the University of Colorado.”
Among CU’s nearly 50 distinguished professors is Jessor, the behavioral psychologist who joined the faculty in 1951 and since has worked to help boost its academic reputation.
“When I came here, CU was a sleepy university, and now it’s ranked very highly. To bring in a candidate who is just mediocre, who seems to have no depth, who hasn’t shared concerns for scholarship, for social justice, and hasn’t shown empathy for those who are marginalized and discriminated against, that undermines all that we’ve been striving to do all these decades,” he told The Independent. “It’s just not fair to have that kind of person in the leadership of the university.”
Another distinguished professor, historian Elizabeth Fenn, examined Kennedy’s curriculum vitae and compared his claims about progress he has made regarding Native American issues at UND to his record. She found that he:
- Reduced tenure track positions at the American Indian Studies Department from three to one, at the same time making it a “subsidiary” of the History Department
- Turned a building devoted to American Indian culture and services into a center for all minorities
- Overstated his work building collaborations with tribal colleges
“Even more egregious – if I read his CV correctly — Kennedy appears to claim the accomplishments of others as his own,” Fenn wrote the regents last week.
On Sunday, CU’s Faculty Council released a report that cited Fenn’s findings as evidence that Kennedy “presented inaccurate information about his accomplishments on his CV.”
The report also challenges Kennedy’s assertion that, since devoting his career to academia, he has distanced himself from politics. It notes that he was treasurer of conservative Minnesota Republican Tim Pawlenty’s 2012 presidential campaign while teaching at The Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University.
Kennedy responded Monday morning by arguing that his involvement with Pawlenty’s campaign started before he advanced from a teaching job to an administrative position. He wrote that the Faculty Council has identified no ethical misconduct, but rather misconstrued his record and his responses to questions at last week’s forums.
Distinguished Professor Lorrie Shepard, an expert in research and evaluation methodology and former dean of CU’s School of Education, has written regents that Kennedy’s insistence that he’ll “check (his) values at the door” is ethically troubling.
“Moreover, from the perspective of cognitive science research, this is literally impossible,” she wrote. “Personal values and biases remain at work even when we think we are being ‘objective’. That’s why ‘implicit bias’ and ‘stereotype threat’ have been shown to be real things.”
As an example of when Kennedy’s personal values likely affected his work, Shepard pointed to his decision not to mete out punishments after two 2016 incidents in which white students were photographed wearing blackface at UND. Students in one of those cases boasted that they “Locked the black b—- out” – referring to an African American student – of her dorm room, then shot the picture of themselves in blackface and posted it on her Snapchat account.
Kennedy had said the incidents “appalled” him. But, unlike presidents of other universities who have cracked down on students involved in similar incidents, he said he couldn’t punish UND students for exercising their free speech rights.
Who knew what, and when?
The unity McConnellogue said the board strove for in hiring a new president is cracking.
At-large Regent Lesley Smith, a Democrat, tweeted on the day of the announcement that “Some information about Mark has come to light that is concerning; my colleagues and I will be exploring this further.”
On Friday, Regent Irene Griego, a Democrat from the 7th Congressional District, announced that she’ll be voting against Kennedy in response to input from the public. The vast majority, she wrote in a statement, “have expressed sincere, heartfelt concerns that Mr. Kennedy’s selection will neither enhance our university’s progress nor foster our diversity efforts to protect the wellbeing of students of color, the LGBTQ community, or students with different ideas and backgrounds.”
Regent Linda Shoemaker, a Democrat from Boulder’s 2nd Congressional District – whose family foundation is among The Independent’s donors – also will vote no. She says she has been “shocked by the aspects of Mark Kennedy’s record that have surfaced” since she and fellow regents named him as the sole finalist, and struck by “how strongly people have spoken out in opposition.”
“Students feel intimidated and threatened and insulted by the regents’ choice of Mark Kennedy as the sole finalist,” she said after his forum Friday in Boulder. “I could hear the fear in their voices. The faculty questions were much more controlled, but they were equally distressed.”
As Shoemaker tells it, she did not research the applicants on her own before meeting them, and there was no time to review Kennedy’s congressional record between his late-morning interview on April 4 and the board’s selection that afternoon. She relied on the background report that O’Rourke prepared.
“We didn’t know about his amendment to ban gay marriage, or his votes or any of that. For two hours he sounded like a moderate Republican. Nobody told us he’s a far-right conservative,” she says. “I really trusted that we were getting the full picture from the search firm and internal legal. I assumed I was given all the relevant information I needed as a decision maker to make a decision.
“The only conclusion I can draw is the search firm thought they were working for the Republicans on the board.”
Wheless Partners – whose $99,000 contract for the presidential search includes vetting the applicants’ backgrounds – has not responded to inquiries for this story.
About Kennedy’s congressional voting record, CU’s McConnellogue was quoted by The Grand Forks Herald as saying, “Some of the issues just aren’t relevant to the job,”
O’Rourke, for his part, started a phone interview with The Independent last week by noting that he works for all nine of the elected regents, who often have disparate political views and agendas. He also noted that he and his staff are “only human.” Still, he accepts some of the blame for some regents feeling blindsided.
“I was responsible for providing the regents with background information on the candidates. If any of them believe that they did not receive adequate information about Mark Kennedy’s political history and voting record, I take responsibility for not having met that expectation,” he said.
Asked about possible disparities between the depth in which he summarized Kennedy’s background and that of the other Republican politico who was a frontrunner, O’Rourke said, “That may be somebody’s opinion. I disagree with it.”
“We did not approach this from the standpoint of trying to be more thorough with one candidate than another.”
Regent Jack Kroll is a Democrat from Denver’s 1st Congressional District and vice chair of the board. He works full-time as an assistant director of admissions at CU Boulder. He says he can’t remember what aspects of Kennedy’s congressional voting record were mentioned in his background packet or during his interview.
“You know, there’s a lot of information that has come forward and we, we discussed, you know as a group, some of these issues and stances. … But as it relates to a specific vote, I don’t remember if those specific votes was something that we discussed.”
Kroll says he researched the six applicants who’d made the short list prior to their April 3-4 interviews, including Kennedy. “I think I started on his Wiki page and you go from there.”
“This Google thing, we all have access to it,” added one of two other regents who say they also researched applicants on their own.
All three regents who acknowledged doing so say his voting record didn’t surprise them.
“To the extent that we knew that Mark Kennedy was a former Republican congressperson who served in the early 2000’s, that’s where his party was,” said Kroll. “I don’t think it would be surprising to have some of the information come forward that has come forward.”
“What is more important in this process,” he added, is what Kennedy has accomplished at UND and whether he has taken “any actions since leaving Congress” to push his political views in his roles at universities.
Board Chairwoman Sue Sharkey, a Republican from the 4th Congressional District, has echoed those remarks, saying in interviews that she cares about Kennedy’s current views on topics such as same-sex marriage, not about the views he held 15 years ago.
She and Kroll issued a joint statement saying, “Mark Kennedy spoke with us at length about his current support for same-gender marriages, how he worked productively with the LGBTQ community at UND and hired its first LGBTQ coordinator, and that he supports diversity, both on the campus and in whom he hires. He also spoke with us about his leadership style, strategic planning and collaborative relationships through the shared governance process.
“We did not rush and did not compromise in our efforts to find the strongest candidate…”
On Monday morning, Regent Hill posted a lengthy Facebook commentary slamming “some Democrat Regents (who) have been frantically looking for any possible way to backpedal at the first sign of opposition from their liberal base, finding ways to seek cover so that they can justify changing their initial Yes votes to No votes.” About those claiming to be surprised by Kennedy’s voting record, he wrote that they are “hoping that their liberal base is uninformed enough to believe that Regents never conducted their own independent research on each finalist.”
The “small, well-orchestrated Far Leftist mob” Hill says is behind opposition to Kennedy “in my opinion represents a mentality as dangerous to this nation’s future as any foreign threat we face.”
“I will not budge,” he wrote. “Come Hell or high water, I will proudly and unapologetically vote Yes this Thursday to appoint Mark Kennedy as our next CU President.”
Thursday’s meeting has been set for 1:00 p.m. at Krugman Hall on the CU’s Anschutz Campus (12700 East 19th Avenue, Aurora, CO 80045).
Some faculty members and students are starting to discuss efforts to recall regents who vote yes. And CU’s public relations team – which reports to Benson – continues working to help Kennedy respond to criticism.
Some close to the process wonder whether those efforts coaching him are appropriate, given that this interim between the regents’ announcement April 10 and their final vote is supposed to be a vetting period.
“I attended a number of the meetings, both public and private, with Mark Kennedy as he toured the CU campuses last week. It is unclear to me, even now, if the week was designed to allow Mr. Kennedy time to prove himself to the public, or rather, to showcase him as the heir apparent,” Shoemaker says.
Benson has not returned inquiries for this story.
Former Sen. Udall called on CU Monday to reopen its presidential search, stating that “Too many questions remain unanswered, and a new president who doesn’t have a broad cross section of support from all of Colorado’s stakeholders will be hamstrung from the very beginning of his or her tenure.”
In a letter to regents Monday morning, 366 CU alumni – many of whom are donors – expressed “displeasure with both the process and the substantive choices” that led regents to choose Kennedy as their sole finalist. They called it “mindboggling how many of these issues were not publicly discussed prior to his nomination.”
“It is never too late to admit you made a mistake. Start the process over. Include more students, alumni, faculty, and the public in your selection process. Increase transparency and solicit more feedback,” they wrote. “Also, strongly consider not selecting a former politician with a lengthy voting record from either party. Find a consensus candidate that we can all be proud of.”
The group added that “it will be extremely difficult for us to continue our donations or our active engagement” with CU if Kennedy’s nomination is not withdrawn.
Some regents say they’ve heard from other donors – including major ones – also threatening to pull their support. Two donors who in the past year have contributed $80,000 and $150,000 told The Independent that their contributions will dry up with a yes vote.
From Virginia, two George Mason University scholars chimed in Monday with an especially sobering I-told-you-so.
Judith Wilde, a professor in George Mason’s policy and government program, and her colleague, Professor Emeritus James Finkelstein, authored the first-ever study of contracts between public universities and executive search firms for the hiring of presidents. They had read about CU’s search last fall and emailed regents Sharkey and Kroll offering advice. They warned against what they called “secret searches” – ones in which there’s a sole finalist and no public information about the other frontrunners. They also warned against relying on executive search firms to thoroughly investigate applicants’ backgrounds.
Wilde and Finkelstein emailed the two regents against this week to deride them for not heeding their warnings and to say it appears CU’s search “has become one of the most controversial in the nation both in terms of process and outcome.”
“While there is no way to predict the future should the Regents go forward and make this appointment as planned, we can say with reasonable certainty the next several years at the University of Colorado will not go smoothly,” they wrote.
Last week, after his forum at the Anschutz campus, The Independent asked Kennedy if the controversy around his hiring has led him to consider pulling his name from contention. He paused, and walked closer to McConnellogue before answering.
“The University of Colorado is one of the finest research institutions with some of the (best) minds in this country,” he said.
But that wasn’t an answer.
“Have you considered pulling out?”
Kennedy made the deep eye contact that had impressed regents at his interview.
“No,” he said, and swallowed hard. “No, not at all.”