The University of Colorado’s Board of Regents has hired Mark Kennedy to lead the state’s flagship university despite overwhelming opposition from students, faculty and staff who say his conservative political record is out of step with the CU system’s values.
The former Republican congressman and University of North Dakota president will replace retiring CU President Bruce Benson in July.
Regents’ 5-4 vote Thursday was split along party lines, with Republicans supporting Kennedy’s hiring, and Democrats opposing it. Regent Linda Shoemaker, a Democrat from Boulder, was the lone vote against giving him a three-year, approximately $800,000-a-year compensation package, saying it’s “far too long for a president this controversial.”
Kennedy was passed over for the presidency of the University of Central Florida last year largely because of his political record.
“I know I need to earn trust,” he told reporters after Thursday’s vote.
The 62-year-old former small-town accountant worked as a top executive for the former Pillsbury Company and for the corporation that now owns Macy’s, and taught briefly at The Johns Hopkins University before becoming UND’s president in 2016.
But it’s his political record that has drawn outcry since April 10, when regents named him the sole finalist out of 160 applicants. The other frontrunner was also a former Republican politician – a woman who held a high-ranking office out-of-state before moving on to higher education.
Although the nine-member Board of Regents had reached consensus on picking Kennedy as their sole finalist, the four Democrats gradually withdrew their support of his formal hiring in response to outcry that his conservative values don’t reflect those of the 67,000 students and 35,000 instructors, researchers, faculty members and other workers on CU’s four campuses.
From 2001 to 2007, during three terms representing rural Minnesota in Congress, he twice sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. He also voted to deny funding for stem cell research – which CU conducts – and to restrict abortion rights, funding for women’s reproductive health care, and family planning aid overseas. His campaigns were heavily backed by pro-gun and Christian right groups.
At public forums on CU’s four campuses last week, Kennedy drew criticism for not having defended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) students while president of UND because, he said, that school doesn’t have any. LGBTQ students and faculty members told him they take offense at what they deem to have been his homophobic votes in Congress. And ethnic minorities and immigrants said, despite his assurances to the contrary, that his voting record makes them feel unprotected.
CU students worry “we’re taking a step back,” Sierra Brown, student body president at the Colorado Springs campus, told regents Thursday.
William Mundo, a medical student at Anschutz campus, reminded the board that CU is an “institution of higher education, not a business and not a political thing.”
The chairwoman of CU’s Staff Council, Nancy Moore, derided Kennedy for avoiding answering questions directly in his meeting with that group last week and for speaking “like a politician.” When asked why he wanted to lead CU, she noted, “all he could tell us that there were good views in Colorado.” She urged regents to heed the faculty’s input.
Based on Kennedy’s forums last week, 80% of CU faculty, students and members of the public who submitted input on the university’s portal gave him the lowest ranking, worded as “will have difficulty in meeting expectations in most areas.”
Most who showed up at Thursday’s meeting had come to oppose Kennedy. But Harey Haight, a retired police officer from Thornton, said he attended because, “I just think the guy needs to be given a fair shake.”
Haight, who sent both of his children to CU, had watched a video of Kennedy’s public forum at CU Boulder on Friday and said he was “thoroughly embarrassed and ashamed” of the way students jeered and taunted him.
“I think they were attacking too much, not listening,” he said.
Some of the regents were focused on their cell phones and laptops as the public and their fellow regents offered their views on Kennedy and on a selection process that has been criticized for being secretive and politically motivated.
Before casting his yes vote, Regent Glen Gallegos, a Republican from Grand Junction, said, “As a minority, I’m not going to put someone in a position” to set minorities back. “One person cannot move this university back to the Dark Ages,” he added.
John Carson, a Republican regent with a corporate law practice in Greenwood Village, called Kennedy “a man of courage” for his willingness to respond to “sometimes hostile questions” from students. In a common refrain from Republicans critical of what they view as liberal hegemony on college campuses, he questioned if CU “really believe(s) in diversity, all forms of diversity, including diversity of thought?”
Republican Regent Chance Hill tried to walk back comments he made Monday when he called critics of Kennedy a “small, well-orchestrated Far Leftist mob.”
At-large Regent Heidi Ganahl, also a Republican, said, in reference to Kennedy, “We knew about his votes, we knew about his history and we accepted his answers.”
“I’m very, very proud of the work that we did” in the selection process, she added.
Board Chairwoman Sue Sharkey, a Republican, danced a brief jig after Thursday’s vote and gave Kennedy an awkward hug. “Yes!” she said to no one in particular in the hallway.
Democratic Regents Shoemaker and Irene Griego had announced their opposition to Kennedy’s hiring before Thursday’s meeting.
Shoemaker – whose family foundation is among The Colorado Independent’s supporters – thanked the news media for bringing aspects of Kennedy’s record to light. She noted that the selection process has been “somewhat of an embarassment” because she and other regents have said they were not aware of Kennedy’s voting record before choosing him as their sole finalist. “I think the people who vote for this today will own it,” she said.
At-large Regent Lesley Smith, a former CU professor, said she opposed Kennedy because she had campaigned on a promise to be “the voice of the faculty.”
Board Vice Chairman Jack Kroll, a Democrat from Denver who works in CU-Boulder’s admissions office, had expressed strong support for Kennedy for three weeks and was expected until this week to cast a yes vote. Denver Democrats pressed him hard to vote no, and he did so, saying Kennedy “is not the best person to lead our university.”
If Kennedy felt awkwardness about his controversial hiring, he didn’t let it show as he and his wife Debbie, both dressed in Buffalo black and gold, walked into a brief press conference after Thursday’s vote. CU’s 23rd president was amped up as he repeated many of the talking points about collaboration and inclusiveness that he gave audiences last week.
A newspaper in North Dakota had reported that, upon his arrival there, he asked to be referred to as “the honorable” because of his stint in Congress. Asked if that’s his preference in Colorado, he said no.
“Call me Mark. Call me anything,” he said. “Just don’t call me late for dinner.”