Is New University of Colorado President Mark Kennedy Already on the Clock?

The first official portrait of Mark Kennedy as University of Colorado president.
The first official portrait of Mark Kennedy as University of Colorado president.
Yesterday, May 2, after a particularly ugly fight over matters ranging from ideology to fundraising ability, the University of Colorado regents named former hard-right Minnesota congressman Mark Kennedy the new president of the CU system by a 5-4 margin, with all the board's Republicans supporting him and all the Democrats voting against him.

The CU communications staff responded with messaging, including a video from Kennedy on view below, that is clearly intended to put nastiness in the rear-view mirror. Meanwhile, those who opposed his appointment are promising vigilance, including Joanne Addison, who is both an English professor at the University of Colorado Denver and head of CU's Faculty Council, which issued a devastating report about Kennedy's candidacy.

Corresponding via email, Addison writes, "Kennedy made quite a few promises and we expect him to keep them."

Also weighing in is Julie Carr, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in CU Boulder's English department who was part of a team that wrote an "Open Letter to the Regents of the University of Colorado" critical of Kennedy. She shared her observations about the hire in an essay on view below.

Meanwhile, Deep Badhesha, a CU Boulder law student who was one of the driving forces behind the opposition campaign, argues that Democratic regents, knowing Republicans had the votes to win, did their best to mitigate the damage by insisting Kennedy be given a relatively short, three-year contract with a salary ($650,000 in year one, $850,000 for each of the next two) that's on the low end for presidents of universities CU's size, albeit considerably larger than the one his retiring predecessor, Bruce Benson, has been hauling in.

By the time the contract is ready for renewal, Badhesha expects that Democrats will hold a majority on the Board of Regents and send Kennedy packing. "By 2022," he says, "he'll hopefully be on his way out after basically looting us for $2 million."

Kennedy strikes a considerably more upbeat tone in the aforementioned video. Here's what he had to say:

As for the regents, an internal CU email sent in their names under the signatures of chair Sue Sharkey and vice chair Jack Kroll calls for the healing to begin.

"We ask that you join us in working with him to help CU reach its fullest potential," an excerpt reads. "By working together, the Board of Regents, Mr. Kennedy, our students, faculty and staff, and all who care for the university can continue to provide opportunities, improve our communities and world, and transform lives."

The letter acknowledges that "the past weeks have been challenging for some in the CU community. The Board of Regents understands and appreciates the concerns that people inside and outside the university have expressed, and we take those seriously. We will have ongoing conversations with him about addressing those concerns."

The regents add: "Mark Kennedy shared in open forums and meetings with key campus groups, as well as in his conversations with the board, that he will spend his first few months learning about the university, listening to its constituents and engaging key stakeholders. It is in our collective best interests that Mr. Kennedy succeed, so we thank you in advance for your part in that effort. He has pledged a collaborative approach that welcomes all voices, respects academic freedom and fosters an environment of inclusiveness and respect."

Badhesha doesn't buy such talk of unity, particularly in light of a Facebook post by regent Chance Hill that read in part: "I will not reward a small, well-orchestrated Far Leftist mob — who in my opinion represents a mentality as dangerous to this nation’s future as any foreign threat we face. The Far Left has deployed shameful tactics in this context. And as long as the Far Left engages in this bullying behavior, we must confront them. Perhaps some day we will demonstrate that they cannot win through intimidation. It’s up to us."

"I can't help but think that some of the Republican regents wanted to stick it to the libs one last time," Badhesha maintains. "That's the culture we hear about so much. It's no longer about policies. It's literally about red team versus blue team, and I'm so sad about that. There are a lot of reasons fiscal conservatives shouldn't like this guy, and they're going to come to fruition."

According to Badhesha, he's familiar with a number of major CU donors "who've given hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past few years and who say they're not going to donate while he's president. So unless those funds are going to be picked up by Mike Pence or Pete Coors, there's going to be a drastic downturn in fundraising."

He's making a similar gesture of his own, too. "I've been used for university of law advancement several times. My image is on various videos and postcards saying, 'Hey, please donate to CU Law,' or 'Thank you for donating to CU Law.' I'm going to ask that my image be removed from those things, and I'm going to tell everybody, 'Please don't donate to CU Law as long as this guy is president.'"

The seeds for Kennedy's hiring were planted in November 2016, Badhesha believes. "If [Democrat] Alice Madden had won the at-large regent seat over [Republican] Heidi Ganahl, Mark Kennedy wouldn't be our president," he allows. "It really shows that local elections do matter. But I expect Congressional District 6 to flip blue, and when the Democrats have a majority, I assume the board won't renew this guy's contract — mostly because I don't have faith in what he's about to do."

Until then, the student opponents plan to maintain their CU Against Kennedy website, plus Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, with the focus morphing to accountability. In Badhesha's words, "We'll be watching."

Continue to read Julie Carr's observations about the process that led to Mark Kennedy being chosen as CU's president.

click to enlarge Julie Carr is an associate professor at CU Boulder. - COURTESY OF JULIE CARR
Julie Carr is an associate professor at CU Boulder.
Courtesy of Julie Carr
Clearly the decision to hire Mark Kennedy was made before any feedback or response from the community was given.

The Regents selected him after a two-hour interview, and I am quite convinced that not one of the Republican Regents ever considered not voting for him. Their own poll revealed that 82 percent of all responders gave Kennedy the lowest possible ranking. Even on the Colorado Springs campus, which has historically been the most conservative campus in the state, 62 percent of responders gave him the lowest possible ranking, and only 10 percent ranked him highly.

Moreover, the Faculty Council pointed to numerous ethical violations in his CV, and at all of the public forums, Kennedy was met with strong disapproval from the community. It goes on. The Republican Regents disregarded the will of the community on all four campuses, the wisdom of the distinguished professors and both faculty and staff councils, and even the advice of the fairly conservative Denver Post.

Why would they do this? There is only one answer. They intended to hold on to the one Republican power center left in the state of Colorado. It seems that, as Chance Hill wrote on his now-notorious Facebook post, they consider the university nothing more than a "far-left mob," which says quite a bit about their respect for scientists, doctors, law professors, economists, sociologists, historians, mathematicians, artists, musicians and philosophers, let alone students hoping to become leaders in such fields. Who do they respect?

Sadly, the comments I read from those who supported Kennedy tended to endorse the idea that the university is nothing more than a "leftist mob." It's immeasurably concerning when the politics of our country divide those who believe in education against those who do not. It's even more concerning when the university policies and budgets are set by people who clearly do not respect the educators and students they have such power over.

How will Kennedy lead? I really don't know. Perhaps he will simply fundraise and maintain a hands-off policy, as he claimed he would. But fundraising is not a politically neutral activity. It matters where the money comes from; it matters who is paying the bills. Funders don't simply give money and then go back to their yachts. To the contrary, they often have a strong desire for certain outcomes. And so I worry for the humanities on our campuses (already beleaguered) and I worry for programs that support equity for LGBTQ+ people and people of color, and I worry for the most vulnerable earners on campus: the graduate students, staff, and non-tenure track faculty. When the university president will be earning over $800,000 in his second year and our students struggle to pay for food, something is seriously wrong.

There are two good things that came out of this process. 1) The faculty across campuses are much more united than they were before. We have a solidarity with one another that is now quite strong. 2) The university community, and the Colorado community at large, is now much more aware of the power that the Regents wield, and much more alert to the fact that the Republican Regents are leading with total disregard for the people they supposedly serve. With that, Democrats should be able to flip some of their seats in upcoming elections, as we have done with the Statehouse, and we are certainly motivated to do so.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts