Mark Kennedy, new president of the University of Colorado system, visited the Colorado Springs campus Monday and said he won’t be a stranger.
“You can expect me to be in Colorado Springs on a regular basis,” Kennedy said on his first day on the job. “We are the University of Colorado system, and our goal is to nurture and lift up all four campuses.”
The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs was Kennedy’s first stop, en route to the campuses in Aurora, Denver and Boulder.
Kennedy, a former Minnesota congressman who had been president of the University of North Dakota, faced opposition after the CU Board of Regents in April unanimously selected him as their top finalist.
Resistance came from advocates for women’s rights, LGBTQ groups and Latinx students as well as faculty about Kennedy’s conservative voting record while in Congress in the early to mid-2000s.
Their concerns included his ability to help the campuses advance inclusivity and promote diversity, support university research, protect the status of undocumented students and back university donors.
Opponents mounted protests and appealed to the regents to nominate another candidate. The Republican-controlled board split on a party-line 5-4 vote May 2 in confirming Kennedy, who said he’s “heard and understood the concerns.”
“We’ll see not just me but the administration aggressively addressing the concerns,” he said, adding that his past will not be “reflective of my future behavior.”
“I do firmly believe in academic freedom and want to make sure we continue to demonstrate that,” Kennedy said.
His three-year contract, which has a base pay of $650,000 for this academic year and $850,000 for the subsequent two years, plus benefits and bonuses for meeting benchmarks, has a clause saying he must promote diversity, protect freedom of expression and academic freedom, create financial accountability and ensure access and equality.
With his wife, Debbie, at his side, Kennedy toured and got up to speed on the UCCS Cybersecurity Building and the National Cybersecurity Center it houses, the Ent Center and the under-construction William J. Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center.
Construction on the Cybersecurity Building on North Nevada Avenue is to begin this fall to create four classrooms and four labs for UCCS cybersecurity students and offices for faculty. The $5 million project would be half of what’s envisioned for learning space, said Vice Chancellor Martin Wood.
The state-funded National Cybersecurity Center leases part of the 130,000-square-foot building from UCCS for its programs on education, government and business.
President Donald Trump, after announcing that he wants to build a Space Force, chose the National Cybersecurity Center to be the lead agency as the site of a Space Information and Analysis Sharing Center, said Dale Hetke, director of operations.
The Ent Center opened last year on North Nevada Avenue near Austin Bluffs Parkway and offers visual and performing arts events and education.
Kennedy said that as a high school band trombone player, and then touring with a men’s chorus and playing in a jazz ensemble, he loves music and theater and plans to attend Ent Center performances.
Next door, the William J. Hybl Sports Medicine and Performance Center will open an orthopedic clinic in April and classes for students in the fall of 2020. It will be the first in the nation to combine academics with a clinical sports medicine practice, said Professor Andy Subudhi, program director of human physiology and nutrition.
Kennedy calls all three centers “strengths” that he wants to leverage in the community and system-wide.
“Higher education is only going to get more competitive,” he said, adding that Colorado Springs’ proximity to military installations, the U.S. Olympic Committee and national governing boards “gives us the strength for others to match.”
Specifically, Kennedy said he wants to “weave existing collaboration more tightly together” between UCCS and government, the military, nonprofit organizations and local industry.
He also supports revamping the UCCS School of Engineering with new labs, classrooms and offices, a plan that the regents have not yet approved, and said he will work to increase graduation rates.
UCCS’ current graduation rate is 45 percent.
While UCCS has bucked national trends of seven years of declining enrollment with year-after-year increasing enrollment, Kennedy said it’s important to focus on student outcomes as well.
“The best thing for me to do is to listen, learn, understand the opportunities and the concerns and figure out how we can leverage those opportunities and make sure the concerns broad-based across the community are being addressed,” Kennedy said.
CU Regent Chance Hill, who represents the 5th Congressional District, which includes El Paso County, said he’s “100 percent certain that he’s the right person for the job” and will “continue to improve the trajectory” of the university system.