Sole finalist for president of the University of Colorado system Mark Kennedy received the iciest reception yet at his last open forum Friday morning at the University of Colorado Boulder campus.
Kennedy, currently president of the University of North Dakota, has faced criticism for his conservative congressional voting record, his perceived lack of authenticity and his business record. Some are also criticizing the search process that resulted in his nomination.
The Board of Regents is expected to vote on whether to appoint Kennedy as president on May 2, though a location has not yet been set.
Kennedy visited the CU Foundation, University of Colorado Colorado Springs, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and University of Colorado Denver earlier this week. At each of the campuses, he faced increasingly chilly audiences. Kennedy has been nominated to replace outgoing CU system President Bruce Benson, who is retiring in July
Kennedy and Regent Chair Sue Sharkey, R-Castle Rock, took the stage at Macky Auditorium to loud boos. During his opening speech, Kennedy was laughed at while talking about unifying campus communities. He also misspoke and said he wanted to make CU “the most exclusive,” rather than “most inclusive,” which prompted an uproar from the crowd.
While people yelled intermittently, Kennedy kept going and didn’t address the noises from the audience.
Phaedra Pezzullo, an associate professor in communications at CU Boulder, said she was shocked that Kennedy slipped and said “exclusive” several times.
“It makes me worried that inclusivity is just a talking point,” she said.
Many of the questions centered on diversity and Kennedy’s voting record, but he was also questioned on his CV.
Distinguished Professor Elizabeth Fenn said she studies native peoples in North Dakota, and reached out to contacts about one of Kennedy’s strategic plan’s goals. Kennedy wrote on his CV that he met with all tribal colleges to create 2+2 Finish in 4 programs.
Fenn said she was unable to find anyone who knew of this program. She asked who he met with and when.
Kennedy discussed a bus tour, offered to new faculty and administrators, which he took to visit tribal colleges. He said the program is not initiated at each tribal college, but has been established at one.
The University of North Dakota doesn’t have the program with other colleges because “not all of them have embraced us,” he said.
Bob Sievers, a former regent and and director of the environmental program at CU Boulder, said he was concerned about several things with Kennedy. He asked if Kennedy would be willing to be compared to other candidates to “make this a more conventional, normal process, rather than one that is extensively predetermined and shoved down our throats?”
Kennedy deferred his question to the regents.
Kennedy was also asked about instances of students using blackface at the University of North Dakota. Inside Higher Ed reported that the university chose not to punish the students who committed the acts.
Kennedy said he joined the protest following the incidents and then deferred to a behavioral intervention team, which worked with affected students and found there was nothing the school could do to prosecute it.
A student who identified herself as conservative said her campus was not very welcoming to conservatives, and asked how Kennedy would enforce the First Amendment.
Kennedy spoke about the future of jobs, media and the need to embrace different views. He said he’d like to have people with starkly different views have debates and conversations on campus to expand the views of others.
Stephen Mojzsis, chair of the Arts and Sciences council, and others questioned Kennedy on his changed views on LGBTQ issues. Kennedy voted to ban same-sex marriage while in Congress, but has said he would vote differently now.
“You view it as unfair that people question your voting record,” Mojzsis said. “But the votes you passed were not youthful indiscretions. In fact, they were actions of a full grown man.”
Kennedy repeated a story about his mother teaching him to reach out to those who didn’t fit in at school.
“It took a while for it to sink in,” he said. He also said he’d made friends with LGBTQ colleagues and got to know his daughter’s friends, many of whom were in the LGBTQ community.
Eventually, he was asked to publicly apologize.
“I am pained that my actions caused others pain,” he said. “I apologize that my actions caused the pain that you now describe.”
Victoria Acuña, a sophomore at CU Boulder, also questioned Kennedy’s evolution.
“Exemplary leadership is about a lot more than evolving yourself,” she said. “It’s about evolving others. What have you done to evolve other leaders who voted with you (in Congress)?”
Kennedy answered by saying as president of the university he is asking for input from One Colorado, an LGBTQ advocacy organization.
“I haven’t been a politician for a long time,” he said. “As president of my university, my focus has been on what I can do as president of a university.”
Ken Hopping, a staff member at CU Boulder, said he felt excluded after the open forum ended.
“As a gay man, I feel as if I’ve just revisited every conversation I’ve had with people in my history who expressed that they loved me, ‘but,’” he said.