University of Colorado President Bruce Benson, who retires this summer, will be a tough act to follow. Against difficult odds, the Colorado Board of Regents found a worthy successor.
The board announced Wednesday its unanimous and bipartisan selection of University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy, 61, as finalist to serve as the next president of the university system. He will preside over campuses in Boulder, Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs. By state law, regents must announce a finalist at least 14 days before the appointment.
CU students, faculty and residents of Colorado should take comfort in North Dakota’s disappointment over Kennedy’s anticipated departure. An article in North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald on Tuesday lauded Kennedy’s accomplishments, reporting a rumor he had won the Colorado job.
It would “obviously be a hit” to all of North Dakota, the article explained, quoting the leader of an economic development organization.
Kennedy exudes genuine passion for higher education, repeatedly emphasizing a desire to help students achieve better futures. He sees students as customers who deserve good returns on their tuition dollars.
“As a first-generation college graduate, married to a first-generation college graduate, we are passionate about the opportunities that a degree can open up for students, their families and their communities,” Kennedy told a member of The Gazette’s editorial board.
“If you look at the scale and impact of the University of Colorado, with the best reputation in a thousand miles in any direction, it explains why we’re excited to be there. We’re excited about the discovery mission of the research element at the University of Colorado and look forward to helping advance it.”
Kennedy has taught at top U.S. and international universities. He directed the graduate school of political management at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Much like Benson at CU, Kennedy responded to state funding cuts by increasing private-sector funding through public-private partnerships. As a former business executive, Kennedy brings a private-sector skill set that helped Benson transform a once dysfunctional university into an institution respected internationally for academics and research.
“We had to absorb very significant cuts in state support (at North Dakota),” Kennedy said. “Yet, we came together, focused on new priorities and invested in new initiatives. Over the course of the last three years, we have seen a 10-percentage point improvement in four-year graduation rates, an increase in research expenditures, and hundreds of millions in investments in the campus.”
One public-private investment under Kennedy’s watch generated $93 million to replace the university’s coal-fired power plant with a greener alternative.
“It is the equivalent of taking 8,600 cars off the road,” Kennedy said of the new steam electric plant. “We are among the greenest campuses in the country as a result.”
Kennedy took over at North Dakota near the end of a decades-long controversy surrounding the university’s former nickname, the “Fighting Sioux.” Critics called the name a racist stereotype offensive to American Indians, and Kennedy helped with the school’s mostly peaceful transition to the “Fighting Hawks.”
“My focus has included ensuring today’s crop of students are as excited and compassionate about their new logo as students were about the old logo,” Kennedy told us.
His successes at North Dakota include increasing academic freedom and freedom of speech, which come under increasing attacks on campuses throughout the country. During Kennedy’s tenure, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education increased the university’s freedom rating to “green” — meaning students are free to exchange ideas under assurance the campus enforces First Amendment protections.
Kennedy said free speech, academic freedom, all other civil rights, and diversity will rank among his high priorities while leading the University of Colorado.
“I am passionate about doing everything we can to expand freedom and diversity,” Kennedy said. “The ability to bounce different ideas, perspectives and experiences off one another is how we all get a bigger and broader view. Striving toward inclusion and diversity are efforts that need to continue long into the future.”
Principled, goal-oriented and successful, Kennedy stands out as an extraordinary choice to lead the University of Colorado. He seems poised and prepared to continue the upward trajectory led by Benson. Bravo to our regents, who set aside politics and chose a bipartisan path of continued success for Colorado’s world-class university system.