The University of Colorado’s elected board of regents passed over applicants with more experience running universities and more distinguished careers when it hired conservative former Congressman Mark Kennedy as the system’s president last spring.
A list of 30 names leaked anonymously to The Colorado Independent and authenticated by the board’s lawyer shows Kennedy, then president of the University of North Dakota (UND), edged out the heads of far bigger schools such as Penn State, Rutgers and Texas A&M, as well as several prominent Coloradans, including former Gov. Bill Ritter and former Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne.
Kennedy’s unremarkable performance at UND — which has a student body one-fifth that of CU’s and a budget that’s one-eighth the size — and his far-right voting record in Congress made him a controversial lone finalist whose values, thousands of CU students, faculty members and alumni argued, were inconsistent with the university’s. The secrecy around his hiring by a Republican-controlled board that promised applicants confidentiality led to concern among critics that partisan politics, not just merit, determined the outcome.
The Colorado Independent’s reporting, including interviews with a dozen applicants and others close to the hiring process, shows some of the concern was warranted. The Independent found that a selection committee dominated by Republican community members and advised by a consultant with strong Republican ties narrowed a field of about 160 people to short lists consisting mostly of Republicans. Robert Engel, the retired president of the Denver-based CoBank, was one of regents’ favorites for the job. But sources say several regents wanted a former Republican office holder and whittled the selection committee’s six top choices down to Kennedy, who had represented a Minnesota district in Congress, and Kerry Healey, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts who went on to run Babson College, a small private school in that state.
Speaking for the board, its chairman, Grand Junction Republican Glen Gallegos said party affiliation and politics did not factor into the hiring process of a university whose anti-discrimination policy prohibits even the asking of the question. Gallegos declined comment on how Kennedy stacked up against other applicants and defended the promise of confidentiality, calling the leak of the list of names “regrettable.”
Though regents have confirmed the accuracy of the list, none publicly have explained the decision to hire Kennedy for the $850,000-a-year job over others with stellar resumes. Instead, four Republican regents are seeking an investigation to identify the source of the leak.
The list of 30 applicants was emailed in late February to the board of regents by its secretary and lawyer, Patrick O’Rourke, as CU was searching to replace its longtime President Bruce Benson, who was retiring in July. In October — six months after the board chose Kennedy in a controversial, party-line vote — the list was mailed to The Independent’s newsroom in an envelope with no return name or address and accompanied by a handwritten note reading, “I trust you will handle this information ethically.”
On regents’ behalf, O’Rourke asked The Independent to help regents honor a pledge they made to applicants that their identities would remain confidential. That pledge, regents said, ensured the highest qualified pool.
The Independent refused, citing Colorado’s open records law and a suit The Boulder Daily Camera filed against regents weeks earlier. The suit asserts the list of applicants and materials about them should be open to public scrutiny as a way for Coloradans to assess how the elected regents are doing their jobs.
Regents, concerned about lawsuits for breaching confidentiality, agreed through O’Rourke to authenticate the list in exchange for The Independent’s agreement to conceal the names of three of the applicants. They are the presidents of a large southern university and a mid-size West Coast university and the CEO of a health care corporation, each of whom informed the board that being outed for having sought the job could jeopardize their current positions. The Independent agreed to conceal their identities based on a standard in journalistic ethics to minimize harm.
The identities of all 160 applicants still remain under wraps, but the short list of 30 includes several prominent Coloradans.
Among them, as The Independent reported in April, was former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat who led the state from 2007 to 2011, and decided not to seek re-election. The CU Law graduate and former Denver district attorney focused his governorship largely on pushing the state toward green energy. Ritter founded and has been running the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.
Also vying for the job was Donna Lynne, a Democrat who served as former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s lieutenant governor and the state government’s first chief operating officer from 2016 through earlier this year. She worked for more than 20 years as a top executive in New York City government under Mayors Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani and later ran Kaiser Permanente in Colorado and several other western states. Lynne taught public health at Columbia University for 15 years, including on weekends while living in Colorado, and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018. She since has been working as Columbia University Medical Center’s chief operating officer and lead executive of its faculty medical practice.
Engel, the retired CoBank CEO whom several regents favored, is a Republican who has touted his experience as Donald Trump’s banker in the 1990s. He angled unsuccessfully in 2017 for an appointment as Trump’s agriculture secretary.
Other Coloradans on the list of 30 include:
- Former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, a CU graduate and Republican banker and developer who served two terms representing Colorado’s 7th Congressional District and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006 and 2014
- Kent Thiry, who stepped down earlier this year as CEO of the Denver-based DaVita Inc., one of the country’s largest providers of kidney dialysis services. Thiry eyed a GOP bid for governor last year and has bankrolled ballot measures to revamp Colorado’s redistricting process and to open party primary elections to unaffiliated voters.
- Joseph Swedish, former CEO of Anthem who earlier in his career ran Centura Health, the largest hospital system in Colorado. He keeps a home in Silverthorne.
- Air Force Brigadier General Andrew Armacost, who was dean of faculty at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs at the time of his application. He was named as Mark Kennedy’s replacement for president of UND earlier this month.
- Walter Copan, undersecretary of Commerce for standards and technology and director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder. The Republican businessman from El Paso County was appointed to that position by President Donald Trump in 2017.
- Western Colorado University President Greg Salsbury
Among notable out-of-state applicants were the following current or former academic leaders:
- Eric Barron, president of Pennsylvania State University, whose student population is about 50 percent bigger than CU’s. He previously ran Florida State University and, early in his career, worked as a research fellow and scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder.
- Michael Young, president of Texas A&M University, clerked for the late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, served as the ambassador for trade and environmental affairs during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and is an expert on trade and religious freedom.
- Debasish “Deba” Dutta, then the chancellor of Rutgers University and now the chancellor of the University of Michigan-Flint
- Darrell Kirch, president emeritus and former longtime president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). He worked previously as the acting scientific director of the National Institute of Mental Health, dean of the Medical College of Georgia and Penn State’s College of Medicine, and CEO of Penn State’s medical center.
- Linda Bell, provost and dean of faculty at Barnard College
- John Montford, former chancellor at the Texas Tech University system
Perhaps the most multi-faceted applicant was then-Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson. The Rhodes scholar and Air Force Academy graduate who served as an Air Force officer stationed at NATO in Belgium went on to spend several years on the National Security Council’s staff, found a business incubator in New Mexico, serve as that state’s secretary for children, youth and families, serve five-and-a-half terms as a moderate Republican congresswoman from New Mexico, and run the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. She withdrew from contention to take a job at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Other defense officials who sought the job, in addition to the Air Force Academy’s Armacost, are Air Force Major General Mark Brown and Jay Gibson, a civilian who was forced out last year as the Pentagon’s first chief management officer due to underperformance.
Prominent business leaders, aside from Swedish, include Justin Gmelich, a former partner at Goldman Sachs.
Healey was chair of the Massachusetts’ Republican Party before being elected Mitt Romney’s lieutenant governor in 2002. On a platform that included opposition to same-sex marriage, she won that state’s Republican nomination for governor in 2006, but lost to Democrat Deval Patrick. At the time of her application, she was running Babson College, a private school focused mainly on business and entrepreneurship. Its 3,000-person student body is 4% the size of CU’s.
After being passed over for the CU job, she became the first president of the Center for Advancing the American Dream, promoting “economic freedom and access to capital” as part of the D.C.-based Milken Institute.
Kennedy, for his part, started his career as an accountant and became finance director for the former Pillsbury Company and a top executive at the corporation that now owns Macy’s. The conservative Republican went on to serve three terms representing a Minnesota district in Congress between 2001 and 2007. Twice, 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
He went on to teach briefly at the Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University before becoming a university administrator. As UND’s president for less than two and a half years, he had strained relationships with some faculty members and donors. A report by CU’s faculty council, which opposed his hiring, found that Kennedy “presented inaccurate information about his accomplishments” on his resume, took credit for increasing graduation rates among minority students that exceeded UND’s own statistics, and claimed to have distanced himself from politics since leaving academia, although he served as treasurer of conservative Minnesota Republican Tim Pawlenty’s 2012 presidential campaign during that period.
Kennedy has said criticism of him and his record was unfair because his views have evolved over the years. His conservative record nevertheless was a factor in the University of Central Florida’s decision not to hire him in 2018 as its president — a job he sought less than two years into his tenure in North Dakota.
Faculty and students, in unprecedented protests last spring at CU’s four campuses (Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs and the Anschutz medical complex), slammed Kennedy as out of sync with a university that has worked for decades to boost its reputation for research, scholarship, tolerance and inclusion. They also slammed the Democratic regents for having voted with Republicans to name him as their sole finalist in April.
It appealed to regents from both parties that Kennedy had experience in Congress, business and academia. So did his promise to accomplish what CU officials say Benson never did: A university-wide strategic plan. Regents also were impressed by Kennedy’s charisma and interpersonal skills, and by his commitment to help them — a board that long has been deeply, and at times bitterly, divided — work together more effectively.
“Those were things we wanted to hear,” Regent Linda Shoemaker told The Independent in April. (Her family’s foundation is among our nonprofit newsroom’s supporters.)
As protests against Kennedy’s hiring escalated last spring, Shoemaker and fellow Democratic regents turned against him, some claiming that O’Rourke had not told them about Kennedy’s conservative congressional record before they unanimously supported naming him the sole finalist. All four Democrats ended up voting to oppose his hiring in May, but were outnumbered by five “yes” votes cast by Republican regents.
In a statement to The Independent, Kennedy said: “There were many great candidates considered for the CU presidency, so I feel fortunate that the Board of Regents selected me for the job. Having learned more about the university since I was hired and meeting the many great people inside and outside CU who care deeply about the institution, I am even more determined to do all I can to further CU’s success.”
The search firm
The Independent tried reaching out — with varying degrees of success — to each of the 30 people on the list. Twelve agreed to be interviewed for this story. Eleven of them spoke “on background,” meaning they did not want their names attached to the information and impressions they shared with us. Some feared coming off as bitter about being passed over. Some were still looking for jobs and did not want their failed applications at CU more visible on the web than necessary. Some recently started new jobs and prefer to avoid the publicity. And two said they did not want to criticize the regents’ selection process because they’d like to apply for CU’s presidency when the job opens up again.
The only applicant willing to speak on the record was Kirch, who earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from CU, and did his medical residency at its hospital. He endows a scholarship for CU medical students who are the first in their families to go to college,
He emphasized that there were people better qualified than he for CU’s presidency.
“It’s not sour grapes that’s leading me to talk,” he said. Rather, he added, he is at a point in his career where he is “freer than most of the applicants” to speak his mind and said his conscience tells him to “make sure people know how problematic the selection process appeared to be.”
Kirch and six other applicants are especially critical of the company the regents hired to lead the search.
Out of nine firms that bid for the contract, the board chose the Alabama-based Wheless Partners at a $99,000 flat-fee, plus $25,000 in additional expenses. That’s significantly less than the $200,000 to $250,000 experts on university searches say is the going rate for a client of CU’s size, complexity and caliber. It is also less than the $189,000 CU paid for the search that hired Benson in 2008.
The board of regents touted Wheless Partners in a press release as “one of the nation’s leading executive search consultant and human capital advisory firms.” But several applicants with decades of experience hiring top university administrators say the company’s profile in that sector and its price both struck them as unusually low.
“I have worked with all of the major search firms in academia over the years and I had never heard of Wheless,” Kirch said. “Nor had anybody I know heard of a search firm that presented itself as doing a comprehensive search for such an extraordinarily low bid. It was concerning to me personally because the appearance was to have a third-rate search firm just going through the motions for as little money as possible.”
Wheless Partners’ website went offline over the past few months and some of the firm’s principals have left to work with the Texas-based Wheless Search & Consulting — which, as former Wheless Partners’ partner Michael Ballew tells it, is an “entirely different company.” Those who worked directly on CU’s search did not return inquiries for this story.
Ballew wrote in an email that Wheless Partners’ price for the CU search was “fair and reasonable.” “We simply quote what we feel are competitive rates.”
Four applicants, unprompted by The Independent, mentioned as another red flag the involvement of Robert Witt on Wheless Partners’ search team. The former chancellor and president of the University of Alabama is a Republican who, according to al.com, helped establish and manage a dark-money nonprofit focused on higher education that funneled $1.4 million of that school’s funding to political PACs benefitting GOP politicians.
“The words ‘Bob Witt’ and ‘non-partisan’ don’t fit in the same sentence,” said a university leader who sees Witt’s participation in any higher education search as a sign that the school wants to hire a conservative.
Board Chairman Gallegos said he was unaware of Witt’s politics or involvement in spending UA money for partisan purposes: “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”
Ballew said Witt, who did not respond to inquiries for this story, was consulted strictly about the “knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for a university president.”
“I can assure you that political affiliation matters not to the firm,” he wrote in an email. “To those who question Dr. Witt’s involvement, I would say that they are simply making incorrect and unfair assumptions without fact. … Perhaps they are trying to incorrectly amplify Dr. Witt’s role in order to support their personal agendas and/or biases about the search process.”
Two applicants noted that Scott Watson, a Wheless Partners co-founder who also worked on CU’s search, spent much of his phone conversations with them chatting about race car driving, his hobby.
“That, uh, surprised me,” said Kirch, a trained psychiatrist and neuroscientist.
The other, a leading researcher in his field, said he expected to speak with Watson “about equity issues, digital learning, (and issues) related to how a premier research university innovates and stays competitive nationally and internationally.” “And here we were, no joke, talking about racing cars, or him talking about racing cars and me listening, rather,” he said. “I told my wife about it. We had a good laugh.”
Ballew defended Watson, praising his professionalism and skill as a “conversationalist” with the “gift of gab.”
The search committee
Aside from recruiting applicants, Wheless Partners’ contract also entailed working with a board-appointed selection committee co-chaired by Republican Regent Heidi Ganahl and Democratic Regent Irene Griego. It consisted of four representatives from each CU campus, one dean representative, one staff representative, and two student representatives, plus the following “community representatives”:
- Martha Bathgate, representing the University of Colorado Foundation board of directors
- Pam Shockley-Zalabak, former chancellor at CU Colorado Springs
- Ben Ochoa, a partner at the Denver-based law firm Lewis Roca Rothgerber
- C.Y. Harvey, president and COO of the Anschutz Corp. and the Anschutz Investment Company
- Jake Zambrano, former director of operations for former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens who now works at EIS Solutions, a political and public relations firm run by influential Republican operatives
- Brian Davidson, who ran unsuccessfully for regent
- Frank McNulty, the former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives
Of the seven community representatives, all but Shockley-Zalabak and Ochoa are Republicans.
The committee narrowed the 160 applicants to 30, and then narrowed the 30 to 11 for in-person interviews. The 11 were Kennedy, Healey and Engel, NIST’s Copan, Rutgers’ Dutta, Texas A&M’s Young, Swedish formerly of Anthem, Barbara Damron, a Republican former head of New Mexico’s higher education department whose husband won the GOP nomination for governor in that state in 2006, and Kirch. The president of a large Southern university who asked not to be named also made the list, as did the Air Force’s Wilson, who pulled out of contention before her interview.
Penn State’s Barron, as well as Ritter and Lynne, were not invited for interviews.
Then the committee winnowed the list even further to the six applicants who met with the regents. They were Kennedy, Healey, Engel, Young, Dutta, and the university president who asked for anonymity.
As the selection was beginning, then-Chairwoman Sue Sharkey, a Republican, declared that the board was “committed to this being a bi-partisan process.” University officials said no applicants were asked about their party affiliation and no one moved up or down in the selection process based on partisan factors. Again, even asking the question would have been a violation of CU’s non-discrimination policy.
Nevertheless, from a field of 160 and then 30 applicants, the selection committee boiled down the list to 11, at least eight of whom are Republicans or used to be before becoming university presidents and ending their party affiliation. Five of the six applicants forwarded to regents for interviews are Republicans or were so before they started leading universities. Dutta is the only of the six whom public records show has not declared a party affiliation.
CU spokesman Ken McConnellogue said in response to questions about that breakdown: “I don’t know that (the list) was dominated by Republicans. Obviously two of them [Kennedy and Healey] have held elected office, so it’s hard to dispute that. I don’t know about the others.”
Kirch said Republican community appointees controlled his interview with the selection committee while members representing the university stayed mostly quiet.
As he and three others interviewed by the committee told it, McNulty — who did not return inquiries for this story — and other politically active Republicans among the community appointees grilled them on how, if hired as president, they would handle ideological differences that could arise with or between regents. Kirch took “ideological differences” to mean “political differences,” and said he hesitated to answer. He said McNulty and others pressed him, and Republican and Democratic committee members debated in front of him about whether those differences matter in choosing a president.
“It was very strange to be in that room,” Kirch said. “I made the statement and observation that it was clear there was not a shared understanding of (regents’) role as a governing board, and if they were to ask me to become president and if I was to agree to take that position, I felt one of the most valuable things we could do early on is to bring in a governance expert to make the transition from making decisions based on partisanship to making them based on evidence, ethics.”
Board Chairman Gallegos said because he wasn’t on the selection committee, “I don’t know who dominated and who didn’t.” And, although he was emailed the same list of 30 applicants that was leaked to The Independent, he said he is “not sure that I remember much about” it.
“I really don’t know that I have a comment as to who was more qualified and who wasn’t.”
Kirch figures the committee must not have appreciated that he turned their questions into a lecture about nonpartisanship. He said the committee, CU’s staff and Wheless’s team did not bother contacting him after his interview to say he hadn’t made the list of six who would be called back to meet with the full board of regents.
“Not even the courtesy of a phone call,” he said. “I learned I didn’t get the job like everybody else: In the news.”
Some applicants mock CU for what they describe as feigning a serious presidential search. Some speak bitterly about the university having wasted their time. Some express dismay about Kennedy’s hiring, saying the depth of his experience does not match CU’s caliber and complexity.
That an applicant with a few years’ experience running “a lower-tier, non-research university… was selected to lead a system that’s poised to be in the upper tier of American universities is a sad statement,” Kirch said.
“We are better than this.”
Colorado is one of four states — in addition to Michigan, Nebraska and Nevada — in which voters elect university regents. Its board has been controlled by Republicans since the 1980s. The balance of power could shift, as it has with Colorado’s congressional delegation. Three of the nine seats are up for grabs in November’s election and congressional districts will be redrawn after the 2020 Census.
Higher education systems in most other states are run by boards of trustees appointed by governors. Experts say the advantage of appointing rather than electing people to govern universities is that a governor could, conceivably, pick members possessing a gamut of skills and expertise to thoughtfully round out the board. The disadvantage, experts warn, is that trustees often are beholden to the governors who appointed them and make decisions at their behest.
“There’s certainly something more democratic about electing regents, and the hope is that they’ll be more independent because of it,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
CU’s board may have independence that appointed boards do not, but it operates in lockstep when it comes to how it communicates with the public, including taxpayers who help support the university. Its policy is to speak with one voice.
“Our board chair will be talking on behalf of all of us,” Regent Griego, a Democrat, said of Gallegos, a Republican, when asked about the hiring of a president she opposed.
As the board’s “one voice,” Gallegos repeats, verbatim at points, the words of McConnellogue, the university’s spokesman.
“You’re going to hear me say that the process we ran was a good process,” Gallegos said. “I think it was an excellent process that produced the results that we wanted. For people to come back and say this wasn’t right and this didn’t work, it sounds like Monday morning quarterbacking to me.”
McConnellogue, on the same topic: “This was a process that everyone involved took seriously and produced the results we wanted. … It’s easy to armchair quarterback the result.”
Gallegos described the selection process as “completely transparent,” then a few minutes later in the same interview, said, “I think it had to be a very secretive process in terms of letting out who the people were that applied.”
McConnellogue: “We’re not concealing things. ‘Concealing’ makes it sound so nefarious. We’re trying to ensure the confidentiality that is allowed us under the law.”
Nationally, anonymous searches for public university presidents are becoming increasingly common, Poliakoff said. “More and more, we’re seeing searches done much more like corporations — anonymously.”
The Daily Camera, in its lawsuit against regents, argues that CU — and other public education systems such as school districts — are not corporations, but rather public institutions funded, at least in part, by tax dollars. As such, the suit says CU broke Colorado’s open records law by concealing the identities of applicants regents interviewed and background materials about them, preventing the public from assessing how regents made one of their most important decisions.
“Colorado residents have the right to vet the actions of their elected officials, including CU regents,” said Julie Vossler-Henderson, the Camera’s central news editor. Her paper and its readers want to know if Kennedy was the strongest among the applicants, she noted, and the only way to discern that is to have access to information that enables a comparison.
Regents have expressed little interest in helping the public scrutinize their hiring decision. Before The Independent had finished reporting this story, Regents Sharkey, Ganahl, John Carson and Chance Hill, all Republicans, were calling for tracking down whoever leaked the applicant list and, if it came from a board member, potentially seeking that regent’s ouster. The four want the university to commission a private investigation — involving handwriting analysis, if need be — to find the source of the leak, whom university sources said they presume to be a Democrat.
“I read about this, this dragnet, or whatever you want to call it, and thought this is classic CU,” said a member of the selection committee who asked not to be named. “If regents cared even half as much about scholarly and scientific research as (they do) about opposition research, just think what a great university we would be.”