University of Colorado faculty, students and alumni turned out in droves to oppose Mark Kennedy as CU president, arguing the then-University of North Dakota leader was unqualified for the job. And that was long before anyone knew the former congressman would have to captain the multi-billion-dollar, four-campus CU system through the volatile waves of a global pandemic.
How he’s braving the storm depends on who’s asked, but eyes are on Kennedy as academics across the state look toward the largest university system for leadership on how to navigate the swells.
The university is getting ready to welcome students back for hybrid learning this fall — or at least more ready than it was last March, with COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, quarantine spaces, social distancing measures, student conduct consequences for violating public health orders and improved online education models.
“No one can tell you we know how this pandemic is going to unfold,” Kennedy told The Denver Post. “We’re expecting there will be positive cases throughout the school year but have a procedure in place to keep that from becoming a broader problem. You don’t know the tempo of that. Are your preparations as prepared for that as you’re going to like and are we going to be able to keep up with any upticks or not? We’ve said many times here are our plans. What kind of a rollercoaster ride are we in for the fall?”
Kennedy arrived at CU in April 2019 as the sole finalist for the prestigious position but faced criticism that his conservative values and voting record and controversial tenure running a smaller institution made him ill-equipped for the role.
Compounding his history, Kennedy stumbled over questions about diversity, worrying marginalized communities, as he made the press rounds and publicly introduced himself to the four campuses through town halls last year,
Kennedy admitted at the start of his tenure that he had his work cut out for him earning CU’s trust.
“It’s great to know that people are passionate about the university,” Kennedy said last week of his contested beginning. “It’s been a great opportunity for dialogue, and it really helped me to get to understand the strength of energy that people have when it comes to caring about CU and where it goes. We have had a great reception from that point forward and look forward to continuing the work.”
Here is a sampling of that work spokesman Ken McConnellogue said Kennedy initiated or completed in the past year:
- Worked with donors and CU Advancement teams for one of the most successful fundraising years in CU history, raising approximately $450 million. The only higher total came last year, when a $140 million gift pushed the total to nearly $550 million.
- Started CU’s first systemwide strategic planning process in summer 2019;
- Hired CU’s first systemwide chief diversity officer, Theodosia Cook;
- Of nine internal and external hires in president’s office, Kennedy hired five women, four people of color and a veteran;
- Launched a pay equity study to examine pay structure across CU;
- Fast-tracked initiatives to substantially increase CU’s online education offerings.
Republican Regent Glen Gallegos, chair of the board, said Kennedy’s commitment to diversity has been commendable and his leadership during the pandemic steadfast.
“The cloud he came in under about maybe not respecting people and not being able to represent all of them — I have not seen that surface at all this year,” Gallegos said. “I think people are to the point where they are giving him a chance.”
When asked for comment about how the Boulder Faculty Council thought Kennedy had done, BFA President Bob Ferry wrote: “Given the difficulties that the University is experiencing and will continue to experience during the current COVID crisis, the BFA Executive Committee believes that at this time it is best not to make a formal comment about Mark Kennedy’s leadership during his first year in office.”
The statement nonetheless went on to say the faculty council is concerned Kennedy is using the COVID situation to “promote his personal project” to extend online instruction.
Markus Pflaum, CU Boulder mathematics professor, said he grew up in Germany and joined academia there shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“I came to the U.S. with such a great constitution and now this person is president who wants to abuse my academic freedom … doesn’t have a clue about research, wants to make a total online school,” Pflaum said. “What a clown.”
Emily Yeh, professor and chair of CU Boulder’s geography department, said she disagreed with former CU President Bruce Benson’s political views as she does Kennedy’s, but that at least Benson took a much lower salary.
Kennedy’s salary became a point of contention in the spring when, on top of his $650,000 first-year salary, he was also on track to receive a $200,000 bonus for completing parts of his job like initiating a strategic plan and reaching out to government leaders and donors.
After campus outcry, Kennedy announced in May he would be donating $150,000 of the bonus to an endowed scholarship fund he and his wife, Debbie, established for first-generation college students and forego the remaining $50,000.
Per his contract, Kennedy’s base annual salary for his second and third year was set at $850,000.
Due to the financial burdens of COVID-19, CU faculty across the state have been subjected to furloughs and pay cuts. Kennedy and other top CU brass took a 10% pay cut through furloughs, bringing Kennedy’s total salary for financial year 2020-2021 to $765,000.
Yeh said Kennedy’s financial sacrifices in the face of such devastation were nothing compared to what those making less money were facing.
Despite any controversies, Democratic CU Regent Irene Griego — the first to issue a statement opposing voting for Kennedy as CU president in April 2019 — said Kennedy has developed a solid foundation for the future in his strategic planning and consulted with many in the CU community and beyond to help him make decisions.
“I think in the area of diversity, he is definitely listening,” Griego said. “He’s still learning. He understands the importance of diversity in our community… I hope he continues to make even more of an effort to hear our students on campus. We’ll see how this next year goes.”
As for students and parents worried about returning to campus, Kennedy has these thoughts: “You’re in a pandemic whether you’re at home or at CU,” Kennedy said. “There’s a lot of worry about young people mingling. Are they only going to mingle at college? I’m sure they’re going to mingle wherever they are. We have a support system at CU. There are no risk-free options available. We’re trying to mitigate the risk to the greatest extent we can.”