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Mark Kennedy’s presidential nomination ignites controversy

The future of CU in the face of change

Presidential nominee Mark Kennedy addresses the CU Denver campus.
Photo: Genessa Gutzait · The Sentry

On April 9, the CU Board of Regents announced Mark Kennedy as their presidential finalist. Kennedy is the former President of the University of North Dakota and has an extensive resume, including business, political, and academic achievements. If confirmed, Kennedy would succeed President Bruce Benson, the longest-serving president of the University.

Kennedy’s nomination has come with intense controversy regarding his voting record as a US Congressman. As a member of the US House of Representatives from Minnesota, Kennedy voted for an amendment banning gay marriage in both 2004 and 2006 and consistently sided with pro-life policies.

Kennedy also voted against stem-cell research in 2005 and voted against providing $84 million in grants to Black and Hispanic colleges. Kennedy currently has a 7 percent rating by the ACLU, which indicates an anti-civil rights voting record, as well as a 0 percent by National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL).

Not only has Kennedy’s political background stirred controversy, but the hiring process itself has also garnered significant scrutiny. A tweet made by CU Regent Lesley Smith on April 10 states that “Some information about Mark has come to light that is concerning,” indicating that Kennedy’s political background was not known at the time of his interview.

However, other members of the Board of Regents have said otherwise. The Board of Regents is an elected body, consisting of five republicans and four democrats.

“We all knew his political affiliation; we all knew that he was a former congressman. In the University non-discrimination policy, it includes non-discrimination based on a political position and political philosophy,” Sue Sharkey, Chair of the Board of Regents, said. “The issues that have come forward to the Board of Regents, the concerns that people have addressed with us, were addressed in the interview process. His answers satisfied the nine regents because he was very clear on not only his past but where he is today.”

In addition, many have questioned the composition of the search committee. However, according to an email sent by Patrick O’Rourke, the Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary of the Board of Regents, “The committee that was appointed reached across all four campuses and included faculty, staff, students, administrators, alumni and community members.”

The search committee was led by Regents Heidi Ganahl and Irene Griego and worked with a search agency to narrow down the search from 180 nominations to 10 interviewees.

There were two student representatives on the search committee: Alex Holmgren, MBA student and Associate Director of the Center for Western Civilization, Thought & Policy at the Boulder campus, and Sierra Brown, the Student Body President of the Colorado Springs campus. Initially, Holmgren was the sole student representative; the committee made the decision to bring Brown on after increased criticism of the lack of undergraduate involvement.

Six candidates were rigorously interviewed in March; Kennedy was the sole finalist. According to Sharkey, “The Board of Regents, without question and without doubt, supported only one finalist, because all of us felt we found the right person in Mark Kennedy.” The identities of the other interviewees remain anonymous due to the University’s legal commitment to anonymity.

The Board of Regents has continually upheld their firm belief in Kennedy. “We believe now what we did then-his skills and experience in business, government, and higher education would make him a great president of the University of Colorado,” Sharkey said. In addition, the Board of Regents have reached out to all campuses, inviting students and faculty to raise concerns and ask questions about Kennedy’s nomination.

Since his nomination, Kennedy has opened up about his past actions, both as a Member of Congress and as the President of the University of North Dakota, including his previous vote against gay marriage.

Kennedy stated in an open letter to the CU community, “Would I vote the same way today? No. My record in supporting the LGBTQ+ community reflects a deep respect for the dignity of each individual. Students, faculty, staff and members of our community will have my full support and respect no matter who they love or how they identify.” As the President of the University of North Dakota, Kennedy hired the university’s first LGBTQ+ coordinator.

Immediately following the announcement of his nomination, community members at CU Boulder organized protests, chanting “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, Kennedy must go away” throughout campus on April 15. Participants included students, faculty, and former CU regents.

A letter to the board requesting his nomination to be withdrawn accrued 4,500 signatures, including students, faculty, parents, and other community members from all campuses. The letter states that “CU needs a leader in diversity, not a follower” and criticizes the Board of Regents for conducting this process “without community input.”

But this is not the first time that the CU presidential nomination has stirred the campuses. Following the nomination of Bruce Benson in 2008, the CU system was outraged by his involvement in the oil and gas industry, with three of the nine regents voting against his nomination. With his own self-made, multi-million dollar oil company, Benson Mineral Group, early critics of Benson accused him of climate change denial and criticized his lack of time in academia.

His predecessor, Hank Brown, also garnered notable attention for his conservative political beliefs. Similar to Kennedy, Brown also voted against same-sex marriage during his time in the US Senate in 1996.

The presidential position at CU is dramatically different than many other universities. The CU president oversees all four campuses, particularly from a business and administrative standpoint, and also interacts with state legislators. Chancellors oversee individual campuses from an academic perspective. While the president does take part in important campus decisions, chancellors have greater relationships and input on the day-to-day affairs of their respective campuses.

In the last week of April, two weeks after his nomination, Kennedy hosted forums at all four campuses, inviting questions and concerns from students and faculty.

At the CU Denver forum, Kennedy was asked questions regarding his goals for the CU system, his position on DACA students, and his background at the University of North Dakota. Students from the Native American Student Organization stood silently in the back of the gymnasium holding signs, one of which read “Mark KKKennedy for President.”

According to one of the protestors and member of the political science department, Sky Roosevelt-Morris, “We are here today to talk about how Mark Kennedy is not our president; he doesn’t belong in CU as long as he has the atrocious track record of violating people’s civil rights, human rights, and dignity.”

Nearly every response from Kennedy included the words “inclusive” or “diversity.” When asked of his past congressional actions and their input on campus, Kennedy pointed to two key issues that he takes a stand on.

“I am gonna set that moral standard, but I’m gonna set that moral standard on things that are essential to the University. Two of the issues that are absolutely vital for me to be strong on are inclusivity… and immigrant students and community,” Kennedy said.

Toward the end of the discussion, political science graduate student Roshan Bliss asked of Kennedy, “What level of opposition would mean that the moral thing to do as a moral leader would be to actually not accept your nomination as president?” The sea of students, faculty, and community members clapped.

“I think that the measure would be after I’ve been here for two years,” Kennedy responded. When asked the same question, Chairwoman Sharkey cited the lack of time remaining to articulate an answer.

While Kennedy’s nomination has garnered significant opposition from CU community members, his future at CU remains a mystery to those outside of the search committee and CU Board of Regents. If his nomination is accepted, Kennedy will take over for President Bruce Benson in the fall of 2019.

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