CU Board of Regents face criticism for presidential search process following Mark Kennedy’s nomination

Expert weighs in on whether process was "transparent"

University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy, the sole finalist for president of the University of Colorado system, speaks Friday during an open forum at Macky Auditorium at CU Boulder as Sue Sharkey, chair of the board of regents, looks on.
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The University of Colorado system Board of Regents is under fire not only for its choice of presidential candidate, but for the process that led to his nomination.

University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy, the sole finalist for CU system president, has faced criticism for his conservative congressional voting record, circuitous answers to students’ and faculty’s questions, and controversial legacy in higher education. He would replace outgoing President Bruce Benson, who is retiring in July.

At the same time, some faculty, students and alumni are calling out the process that led to his nomination without public disclosure of any other finalists.

The CU system and its Board of Regents have said that naming a sole finalist in a presidential search is not unusual and the best way to get the best candidates.

But one researcher disagrees, saying that despite this being a growing trend, it’s still not “common” for searches to result in a final candidate.

Judith Wilde, chief operating officer and professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said she recently has seen institutions plan to only reveal one finalist and conceal all others from the outset of the search process. Other institutions intend to present multiple finalists at the end of the search, but some candidates decline to be named, resulting in an unintentional single finalist.

Wilde is one of the few people in the country who studies higher education presidential searches.

She said that what sets Colorado apart, along with Texas, Florida and Oklahoma, is that its state law requires finalists to be announced two weeks prior to a final vote.

“It seems that this is a way that states have found to really get around that law,” she said. “They are not meeting the spirit of the law at all, they’re not meeting the intent of the law, but they are meeting the letter of the law.”

Diversity

Patrick O’Rourke, a CU system vice president and general counsel to the Board of Regents, wrote a letter on Monday to the CU community explaining the search process.

“Members of the search committee brought many perspectives and represented the university community well,” O’Rourke wrote. “Of its 17 members, seven were from diverse backgrounds.”

The committee was advised by Kathy Nesbitt, vice president for administration and an African-American woman who was state personnel director under former Gov. John Hickenlooper. She also was president of the Kaiser Permanente African American Association.

In every job she’s held, Nesbitt said she was responsible for diversity in some way.

Many faculty have questioned why a chief diversity officer from one of the campuses was not appointed to the committee. The system-wide Faculty Council and School of Medicine Faculty Senate both mentioned the exclusion in open letters.

A total of 181 people were nominated to serve on the search committee. Regent policy guides the composition of the committee, which must have two regents, one dean, four faculty, one student, one staff member, two alumni and four community members.

Brenda J. Allen, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion at the University of Colorado Denver and Anschutz Medical Campus, was nominated for a spot on the committee. Allen has a Ph.D. in organizational communication and has served as a professor and associate dean in the CU system for three decades, and she created a Council on Diversity and Inclusion before getting her current title. She also wrote the book, “Difference Matters,” about how communication relates to power dynamics and identity.

Allen wasn’t chosen by the regents to serve on the committee, and said she has yet to understand why. Providing specific criteria for decision making is a “hallmark of good leadership,” she said.

“My concern about this particular decision is, how does it reflect on other decisions they’ve made along the way?” Allen said. “As I looked at the other committee members, I cannot discern anyone with comparable expertise.”

Allen also serves on all of the search committees for deans and above in her role at CU Denver, she said, and she’s also conducted training on implicit bias.

“One of my colleagues, a person of color, said, ‘Dr. Allen, if they don’t value and respect your expertise, what chance do I have to advance in this university?’” she said. “And I couldn’t answer.”

Students also are upset after regents initially chose a part-time MBA student who works for the university as staff to represent students on the committee. Ultimately, the regents appointed Sierra Brown, an undergraduate student and student body president of the Colorado Springs campus.

One student, Johnnie Nguyen, was nominated by the student body presidents at each campus, as well as Rep. Joe Neguse, D-District 2. He said he didn’t receive an explanation as to why he wasn’t chosen.

CU system spokesman Ken McConnellogue said there are no additional criteria for forming the committee, beyond what is prescribed in policies.

When asked why there were no chief diversity officers on the committee, McConnellogue said that seven of the 17 people on the committee were from diverse backgrounds and minority groups and it was led by Nesbitt, which “demonstrates that the board was interested in having a diverse committee.”

He also said it would be “unfair to minimize” Nesbitt’s contributions.

“I understand their concerns, but that presumes a couple of things,” he said. “One is that a chief diversity officer is the only person that can ensure these discussions happen, and I don’t think that’s accurate.”

Nesbitt said committee members were offered diversity and inclusion training and that she felt she could speak up if she had been concerned that members weren’t thinking of diversity.

“Part of being a champion of diversity is being open to diverse perspectives, and I would think that the students, staff and faculty at the University of Colorado would own that,” she said, adding that half of the semi-finalists were from diverse backgrounds.

Search firms’ advantage

Wilde said she believes the most important thing that a board of regents does is choose a new president.

As those boards become increasingly stacked with people from the corporate sector, the use of search firms is also increasing.

“Search firms make it a practice of telling their clients that the only way that they will get good candidates is by having a secret search,” Wilde said, adding that she doesn’t agree with that train of thought. ” …Having a secret search gives an advantage to the search firms, not the university.”

By keeping candidates secret from the public, search firms can present the same people to multiple universities. If they’re not chosen, the public won’t know and thus won’t look to see why they were rejected.

A half-century ago, 2% of searches were done with a search firm, Wilde said. Now, it’s 92%.

“This is a multi, multi-billion, with a ‘B,’ dollar industry that is only growing,” she said.

Wilde said that, when she was a graduate student, presidential searches would result in a larger number of candidates than they do today. In CU’s case during this search process, more than 100 candidates were narrowed down to 27 before they were presented to the search committee.

Wilde also said that, while CU’s search committee has plenty of people on it and broad representation, more faculty members could have been helpful.

“Having only four faculty members, and they’re the ones who are going to be most affected by this hire, isn’t very big,” she said. Faculty members also have the best networking group, according to Wilde, so it’s likely they can find information from those who know candidates quickly.

Wilde said that naming one finalist is not transparent.

“I would not consider this to be an open search in which faculty, staff, students and the broader community really had a chance to look at the candidates and make any comments about those candidates,” she said.

New information

In 2013, a former staff member at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University claimed that Kennedy discriminated against him for being gay, according to reports from the campus newspaper, The GW Hatchet. The university ultimately rejected the claims, but the Hatchet later reported that employees described a “culture of repression” within the complaint system.

During Kennedy’s tenure as president, the University of North Dakota faced an investigation from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, according to the Grand Forks Herald. The complaint alleged gender discrimination due to the school’s selection of sports, following the controversial cut of women’s hockey. The university also cut men’s and women’s swimming and diving, as well as the baseball program, after Kennedy asked the athletic department to cut $1.3 million from its budget.

Regent Linda Shoemaker, D-Boulder, told the Daily Camera that she did not know about either of these issues when she voted to move Kennedy forward as a finalist.

“I’m still getting new information,” she said Wednesday.

In Kennedy’s application, obtained by the Daily Camera, he is asked if he has ever been the subject of “a complaint or investigation for workplace misconduct, including discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct…” He was also asked to describe “any ethics complaints, professional complaints, professional inquiries … that could cause concern with your candidacy.”

Kennedy answered both of those questions together, describing the reduction of sports at the University of North Dakota and the school’s agreement to drop its controversial nickname, the “Fighting Sioux,” which he said prompted a feud with a major donor.

He also mentioned a dispute with the director of the school’s Center for Innovation. The director officially retired, and Kennedy described him as “politically connected” and pursuing a strategy “unconnected with the university’s research faculty.” The director later accused the provost and Kennedy of a “hostile work environment,” and Kennedy requested a review from the state. The review found no evidence to support the accusation.

But Kennedy did not mention the Title IX and discrimination complaints, three of which were all dismissed.

Kennedy was not available to answer questions this week. When asked about the exclusion of these issues from his application, CU system spokesman Ken McConnellogue said: “I would imagine that there are a number of claims that come forward, particularly as a university president, that are unfounded.”

He also questioned whether a claim against a university is a claim against the individual, and said he interprets the question as asking about the individual.

O’Rourke said there is no legal requirement for candidates to disclose those issues in their applications.

What if…

If the regents don’t vote to appoint Kennedy as president, O’Rourke said that Benson is still president and could remain so until a new one is appointed.

The regents could choose to start the search over or choose from one of the other five semi-finalists. There’s no specific policy regarding what they should do.

The board could also appoint an interim president, though O’Rourke said that’s usually reserved for situations involving injury or incapacitation of sitting presidents.

The Daily Camera contacted each of the regents about how they feel about the candidate following all of the open forums.

Regent Glen Gallegos, R-Grand Junction, and Lesley Smith, D-at large, were the only ones who responded. Gallegos said he thought it would be “pretty inappropriate” to voice his feelings now, as the regents still have to consider all of the electronic feedback forms.

Smith, who is a scientist, also said she is waiting to have all the data before making her decision.

McConnellogue said the feedback will be given to the regents, but won’t be published publicly.

First-year medical student William Mundo, one of two student senators representing the School of Medicine, said he and other CU students deserve more than one option, as well as better representation on the search committee.

“Just because it’s the norm, doesn’t mean it’s O.K.,” he said.

For those upset about the presidential search, Wilde recommends “attack(ing) the process more than the candidate.”

The more that faculty, staff, students and the community “complain, the more they make those complaints known … the more they go in and don’t just say, ‘Well, we don’t like the candidate because,’ but ‘We don’t like the search process because,’ I think that’s where there may be more of a win for transparency,” she said.

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