CU regents vote to name Mark Kennedy president, and must now find a way to unite

Sole finalist has faced heavy criticism for voting record, forum responses

BEST 1 AURORA, CO: May 2, 2019: New University of Colorado President, Mark Kennedy, is hugged by CU Regents Chairwomen, Sue Sharkey, after the regents voted 5-4 in favor of Kennedy. (Photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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The controversial sole finalist for president of the University of Colorado system was approved on a party-line vote at a special meeting Thursday afternoon.

The Board of Regents voted 5-4 to name Mark Kennedy the next president of the CU system, with Republican regents casting votes in favor, Democrats votes against.

Kennedy will replace Bruce D. Benson, who is retiring from CU in June after more than 11 years as president. Kennedy is expected to start on June 15.

“I’m honored and humbled to be the next president of the University of Colorado,” Kennedy said in a press conference following the meeting.

Kennedy’s contract includes a first-year base salary of $650,000, with incentives to increase his pay. Incentives include initiating a strategic plan; visiting rural communities; reaching out to donors, alumni and government leaders; and initiating a campaign to promote diversity and inclusion.

He also will receive a one-time moving expense of $80,000, $15,000 for car expenses, and money to be initiated into a social or country club, among other items.

Many of those who attended the meeting and spoke during public comment Thursday afternoon at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus urged the regents not to approve Kennedy.

After the regents voted, Allie Hoffman, a graduate student at the Colorado School of Public Health, stood up and said: “You should be ashamed.”

But regents said they heard from plenty of constituents who supported Kennedy and they plan to hold him accountable for the promises he made.

Kennedy in the press conference said he is committed to unifying the CU community and plans to spend a lot of time with regents, faculty, staff and students to do so.

“Having a shared vision as to what we can do together is the best way to unify any organization,” he said.

‘Do no harm’

Some of those who attended the meeting said they wanted the regents to listen to constituents and start the search process anew.

Kennedy, who is currently the University of North Dakota president, since he was publicly named as the lone finalist on April 10, has faced criticism for his conservative congressional voting record and responses during five open forums last week.

The public was able to submit feedback online, and the results were not positive for Kennedy. The majority of those who responded by Monday morning opposed the nomination, citing doubts in his ability to lead and past controversies at his current institution.

“I’m here to see really what the University of Colorado stands for,” Troyann Gentile, a faculty member at the University of Colorado Denver, said before the meeting started. “… I think that the constituents have spoken, and I’m hopeful that the university is listening.”

The regents entered executive session for an hour to discuss the search before coming out and opening the meeting to public comment.

Channing Tate, a researcher at CU Anschutz and a student at the University of Colorado Denver, asked how, as a woman of color, she was supposed to feel safe with a president who did not punish students who dressed in blackface and locked a black student out of her room.

Kennedy has said that, when those incidents happened at the University of North Dakota, he joined a student protest but a committee ultimately found the First Amendment did not allow for the students involved to be punished.

“How can you support someone who thinks that blatant racism is a First Amendment right?,” she said to applause.

Former Regent Bob Sievers urged the regents to do what they urge students to do: “Do no harm.”

Staff Council Chair Nancy Moore said many staff members felt their input wouldn’t matter when they heard there was a single finalist.

Moore attended and watched the open forums, and said Kennedy’s answers “fell short.”

“He avoided answering questions directly, instead diverting to talking points,” Moore said. “He frequently said what he thought the audience would want to hear, like a politician.”

She also questioned his commitment to CU, saying he just seemed to mention “there are good views in Colorado.”

Hoffman said she thought Kennedy was “woefully unqualified to serve as president.”

He seemed unable to provide answers about pushing CU forward, she said, and it seemed like he didn’t do his homework.

“If I didn’t do my homework, I’d be failing,” she said.

Not a political decision

Despite the opposition they heard at the meeting, the Republican regents voted to approve Kennedy. They said they’d heard from others who supported their choice, and emphasized that this was not a political decision.

Regent Glen Gallegos, R-Grand Junction, said Kennedy will not be leading the university alone.

“One person cannot move this university into the Dark Ages,” he said, adding that, “as a minority, I’m not going to put someone in a position who’s not going to value” the races and protected classes at CU.

Gallegos said Kennedy was the only candidate who could talk about the future of higher education, at which several in the audience laughed.

Regents Chance Hill, R-Colorado Springs, and John Carson, R-Aurora, both said they’ve heard from people who supported the choice of Kennedy.

Regent Chair Sue Sharkey, R-Castle Rock, did as well.

“Rather than judge for Mark Kennedy for decisions he made more than a decade ago, I listened carefully to the commitments he made,” she said. “We will hold Mark Kennedy accountable for keeping the promises he made.”

The Democratic regents cited feedback they received from their constituents as the reason they voted against Kennedy.

“I pledged that I would serve as the voice of the faculty,” said Regent Lesley Smith, D-at large. “… With the exception of a small handful, the overwhelming majority of faculty do not want Mark Kennedy to be president. I know there is a perception that this is an orchestrated smear job from left-leaning mob, however my data points show that faculty simply yearn for an innovative leader.”

Disappointment in process

The Board of Regents also has faced criticism for naming one finalist. While some on the board and in administration maintain this is common practice, an expert said it is a growing trend but not yet the norm.

Monica Edwards, a staff member at CU Anschutz and part-time graduate student, said she is disappointed the process was politicized.

“This isn’t political,” she said. “This is our health care benefits, this is what we’re allowed to learn in school.”

CU is one of the few schools that still teaches how to perform abortions in its medical school, and the prospect of someone who voted against abortion access while in Congress as president is “scary,” Edwards said.

“We don’t care that he’s a Republican. We care about what he stands up for,” she said.

Faculty Council Chair Joanne Addison cited a story from the Chronicle of Higher Education that unfavorably compared CU with the University of South Carolina system.

Students in South Carolina were unhappy with the four finalists for system president, citing a lack of diversity among the candidates. The state trustees chose to appoint a chancellor as interim president and start the search over.

“Faculty Council recommends that our board take similar action,” Addison said.

Addison and the Faculty Council have been some of the most outspoken in their opposition to Kennedy, which some have criticized.

‘Democracy is dead’

After the party-line vote, the board chair and co-chair said they will find a way to unite and move forward.

However, some who attended the meeting wonder how they can ever trust the board again.

“Democracy is dead here,” said Tamara Terzian, a faculty member at CU Anschutz. “… So they heard us, and they ignored us?”

Addison proposed two requests from the Faculty Council to move things forward. She asked for a transition committee, with faculty from each campus appointed by the individual campus assemblies, and resources to hire a consultant to work with the university on shared governance.

Some Republican regents also said they felt the vote merely exposed a larger issue at CU, which is that people still do not feel welcome.

“We must look ourselves in the mirror and ask, for example, whether we really believe in diversity, all kinds of diversity, including diversity of thought,” Carson said, asking whether inclusion applied to a University of Colorado Boulder student who spoke at an open forum and identified herself as conservative.

Sharkey said it is not uncommon for regents to vote along party lines, which some have criticized. If they always voted unanimously, she said they would “look like we’re a rubber-stamp board.”

“The nine of us are very passionate people,” she said. “We’ll always put the university first.”

Regent Vice Chair Jack Kroll, D-Denver, also said the board is incredibly passionate. While some have criticized that CU is only one of four systems in the nation with elected regents, Kroll said that means state residents have the most direct control.

This vote showed that, “even in times of division, democracy is the best form of governing,” he said.

Kroll said that if residents didn’t like the outcome of the vote, they could show that in the next election.

Tate, who criticized the nomination, said before the meeting that “the regents need to remember that we vote for them, too.

“They need to listen to our voices.”

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