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The sole finalist for president of the University of Colorado system faced another chilly reception at an open forum Thursday afternoon at the University of Colorado Denver.

University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy has been criticized by students, faculty and alumni for his conservative congressional voting record, controversies during his tenure in higher education and what they view as flip-flopping answers. He would replace outgoing President Bruce Benson, who is retiring in July.

Mark Kennedy

Some are also criticizing the presidential search process, which resulted in one publicly named finalist.

Some of those in the audience had already seen or read about Kennedy’s other forums, and were not impressed so far.

“I’ve been hearing Mr. Kennedy stumble with the term LGBTQ,” said Jacob McWilliams, director of the Women’s Gender Center at CU Denver and the Gender & Sexuality Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus.

McWilliams said that, as someone who is queer and transgender, Kennedy’s lack of familiarity with speaking on LGBTQ issues makes him worry about his own risk.

While he said it’s possible that Kennedy’s LGBTQ views have changed since he served in Congress, “from the way he talks about the LGBTQ community, I don’t think” that’s the case.

Marcus Gallegos, a junior at CU Denver, said he doesn’t feel that Kennedy represents the four CU campuses. He also doesn’t see his connection to Colorado.

“This is a huge failure of the regents,” he said. “They did a terrible job, and they need to restart.”

Kennedy was asked pointed questions about his record in business, mistakes and changing his answers.

While he has reiterated his support for the LGBTQ community, as well as diversity and inclusion, some people have said they don’t believe his answers are genuine.

Faculty Council Chair Joanne Addison questioned Kennedy’s stance on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, recipients. Kennedy has said he doesn’t believe the University of North Dakota has any DACA students, and Addison said that’s likely because the school doesn’t offer them in-state tuition rates.

Addison said, to applause, that Kennedy on Monday emphasized leaving politics at the door for DACA, then on Tuesday talked about wanting to go to Washington, D.C., to support DACA students.

“Given how much your stance on DACA students and other issues has changed in a few days, how can we trust you?” Addison said. “It is entirely unclear to us who Mark Kennedy is.”

Kennedy answered her question by talking about the strategic plan at the University of North Dakota.

“I don’t act alone,” he said. “I act in collaborative teams.”

He said he makes sure that other members of the university have the support to complete their established goals.

Diana White, chair of the Faculty Council Budget Committee, asked Kennedy to talk about something he did wrong while overseeing massive budget cuts in North Dakota, and what he learned from the experience.

Kennedy said he didn’t anticipate to face wave after wave of cuts, and that he would “never say never again” after having to go back on a promise to not cut more from athletics.

He also said that enrollment is expected to peak in 2025 and then go down, which could mean more budget cuts. This time, he wants to prepare for them, rather than react to them.

White pushed him further, saying she was warned that that might be his answer.

“What I’m also trying to get at beyond just the budget cuts is just you as a human,” she said, asking him to be vulnerable. “What is something you haven’t handled well and how have you learned from that?”

Kennedy talked about a controversy involving his chief-of-staff at the University of North Dakota. As a young, African American woman, she wanted to go to a more diverse city, he said.

When Kennedy reviewed her duties a few months before she was supposed to leave, he saw that she was doing more than the requirements and changed her title to chief-of-staff, bumping her salary as well and making sure it was gender equitable, he said.

After searching for a new chief-of-staff and failing to find one, he asked her to stay on for six months and allowed her to work remotely, providing travel expenses. He said the cost was still less than a new hire would have been.

“That caused an explosion in North Dakota,” he said, saying it was due to many things, including the remote work component, and that he hadn’t addressed gender equity in pay at a broader level yet.

Looking back, he said he would have tried to address gender equity in pay more broadly.

Kennedy was also asked about his time in 2011 as national treasurer for Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign, which is not listed on his curriculum vitae. Pawlenty wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, and ban same-sex marriage. He also opposed labor unions.

In 2012, Kennedy wrote about why Pawlenty should be the Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president in the HuffPost.

Kennedy said he wasn’t sure those were resumé items.

“The role of university president is to not engage in those types of politics and truly represent everybody,” he said.

Kennedy also addressed his business experience. Several of the comapnies he worked for faced bankruptcies or hostile takeovers.

One company was bought after he left, he said, and he fought against the hostile takeover at Macy’s and then fought to keep jobs.

“My management helped perpetuate the least negative outcomes,” he said.

Kennedy was also asked how he would identify and help dismantle white supremacy in higher education. He mentioned that the audience was not as diverse as the campus may be, and talked about the climate survey that the University of North Dakota initiated under his tenure. The survey led to the creation of course for faculty to learn how to teach in a more inclusive way, he said.

Kennedy’s last open forum will be at the University of Colorado Boulder at 10:15 a.m. Friday at Macky Auditorium.

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