New CU President Mark Kennedy on Past Controversies, Big Goals

Mark Kennedy took over as University of Colorado president last month.
Mark Kennedy took over as University of Colorado president last month.
The process by which former Minnesota Congressman Mark Kennedy was hired to serve as the University of Colorado system's new president this past May proved to be as contentious as any in the institution's history. Critics argued that he didn't represent CU's values, in part because of a conservative voting record on issues such as same-sex marriage, stem cell research and abortion during his 2001-2006 period in office, and his selection by the Board of Regents via a party-line vote (Republicans hold a majority on the panel) left Kennedy's supporters and detractors as divided as ever.

This scenario puts Kennedy, who officially came aboard at CU on June 15 and assumed the presidency on July 1, in a tricky situation. Understandably, he wants to get started on the job for which he was chosen. But he also needs to convince doubters that he doesn't have a nefarious, ideologically driven agenda and is devoted to growing the largest and most robust university in the state, with four major components (CU Boulder, CU Denver, CU Colorado Springs and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus) that served more than 67,000 students last year.

To that end, Kennedy has launched a tour of Colorado that shares commonalities with a political campaign. On top of taking part in a Board of Regents retreat in Tabernash this past weekend, he's made multiple visits to each CU campus and introduced himself to political power players. He's also scheduled stops at communities across the state, including Fort Morgan, where he was headed on the afternoon of July 16 when he took part in the following interview with Westword.

During the conversation, Kennedy, who served as a senior executive for Federated Department Stores, now known as Macy's, prior to running for office, didn't come across as hail fellow well met, ready with an ingratiating comment or a witty aside. He was serious and studious, carefully weighing each word. And while he clearly enjoyed addressing some issues more than others, he didn't dodge any questions, including ones related to his latest controversy.

In recent days, news broke that Kennedy had created a new position, assistant vice president for strategic initiatives, and filled it with Angelique Foster, a former colleague who had generated headlines related to a gig at the University of North Dakota, where he had served as president. In the fall of 2018, Foster, who had previously worked with Kennedy when he was director of the political management grad school at George Washington University, won a promotion to UND chief of staff from a special assistant position, only to make plans to relocate to Texas earlier this year. At first she was given permission to keep her job and work remotely, with as much as $25,000 offered to help cover her moving expenses. But after a state Board of Higher Education member complained, the plans changed, with Foster agreeing to remain in North Dakota until April, after which she would stay on for as long as six months while a replacement was sought.

As you'll see, Kennedy defended bringing Foster to CU Denver, discussed diversity of many types (including the intellectual kind), and talked about the actual duties of the system president, which he says have nothing to do with his political opinions. Among the latter is the sort of fundraising at which his predecessor, former Colorado Republican Party chair Bruce Benson, excelled, as even many of those who were worried about his right-wing affiliations readily acknowledge.

Mark Kennedy's tour of University of Colorado campuses prior to his official hiring brought him to CU Denver. - YOUTUBE
Mark Kennedy's tour of University of Colorado campuses prior to his official hiring brought him to CU Denver.
Westword: Tell me about your recent getaway meeting with the Board of Regents. What were your impressions?

Mark Kennedy: I had a very good dialogue with all of the regents. I think we achieved a lot of unity and focus. There's a strong desire by them and by me to move forward with a strategic plan that unifies focus across all of our campuses and addresses key priorities. A big part of our conversation was how technology is radically changing the workforce, and therefore, what we need to prepare our students for, and how we prepare them. Also the fiscal pressures that are facing higher education, with revenues being less certain or under pressure, while at the same time, costs are going up.

Those are they key issues facing all of higher education, including the University of Colorado. We presented some background, some ideas, on that. And I think all of the regents and the rest of the team were excited that we have a key focus on coming up with good answers that keep CU in the forefront.

On the subject of changing technology and strategic plans, the world is moving so quickly these days. Is one of the challenges of a strategic plan coming up with ways to pivot if the entire landscape of higher education turns in an unexpected direction over the next few years?

I would say that being nimble is the first priority of any strategic plan. How do you have an organization be nimble? Not just having a strategic plan be nimble, but an organization? And I would suggest that for many of the changes we know about, academia as a whole has not been great about adjusting to and pivoting. So, yes, you need to be constantly surveying the waterfront and understanding what waves are coming your way, and be able to navigate those waves. Ideally, I prefer that the organization I'm with be the one that's making the waves as opposed to riding waves that others are causing for us.

What are some of the ways CU can be nimble when it comes to change? Or is that to be determined?

If you look right now, the nation is in the seventh year of declining on-campus enrollment. We are expecting a peak of the graduates coming out of high school in Colorado in 2025 or earlier. So one of the things we need to make sure we're adjusting to is that the world in higher education, as it is in much of life, is moving increasingly online. You may have a view as to that — as to whether we like that or think it's a positive trend. But it is a trend that's happening. There are new digital tools in terms of how we can deliver education that are increasingly advancing, and increasingly, those who invent the tools are those who are defining the education of the future. There is research that increasingly has artificial intelligence accelerated by 5G communication. As one scholar has said, AI is the electricity that affects every field of study. So do we have enough computational science capability in our research efforts in all fields that keeps us at the forefront? Those are some of the trends that technology is throwing at higher education, and we need to make sure we're leaning into that future as opposed to allowing it to buffet us.

On the subject of flexibility, I suspect that the degree of difficulty is increased as a result of the CU system's vast size. It's my understanding that the University of North Dakota, where you served as president prior to coming to Colorado, is about the size of the smallest CU campus. So, clearly, CU is much larger. But once you get to a certain degree of "big," does that make a difference? Or are the challenges similar to ones that you've faced in the past?

I would say, as I said during the interview process, that I don't perceive my experience to be at a scale any smaller than CU. If you look through the expanse of my life's experiences, much of that experience has been at organizations significantly larger than CU, when you think about me being a senior officer at what is today Macy's, or if you look at the congressional experience. So I have not experienced any scale issues where the complexity and the scale of CU is anything larger than I would have expected.

In my third career, in academia, I have worked and learned academia from the bottom up — as a professor, and then leading a graduate school, and then leading a campus and organizing a system. But how you organize, in this case, a multi-campus system in a common direction with a strategic plan that's adaptable to address the uniqueness of each campus, but also addresses the commonality of the shared challenges we face, isn't much different than being at a multi-chain department store or those other aspects. So the totality of my experiences does not make the challenge that I face right now feel inconsistent with the scale of my experience.

What about the specifics of the CU system? We think of CU as a unique, quirky and idiosyncratic institution. Is there anything about CU that you discovered through the hiring process and since coming aboard that's surprised you? Anything about its culture or its structure that caught you off-guard?

I don't know that anything has caught me off-guard. Everybody perhaps thinks they're more unique than anybody on the planet, and there is no doubt that each campus is unique. It has a different focus, it has a different set of strengths. There's also no doubt that it's a little bit different given the context of the CU system that the regents are politically elected, with partisan backgrounds. That only means you need to devote a higher percentage of your time to make sure you're engaging the regents and having all the conversations you need to get a unified purpose.

But I would say that amongst the surprising things for some people has to do with the issue of diversity. Since 2009, much of our growth across the system in student enrollment has been from best-represented minorities and Pell Grant students. So it may be surprising to people who don't have the full comprehension that our being very strong at attracting, embracing, supporting and graduating diverse students is vital and essential for us to meet the needs of the state and deliver the talents the state needs, as well as for the ongoing well-being of the university. It's a bigger, broader issue than some people portray it as. It's central to the success of the university and the state.

I would also say CU is a very substantive research university, amongst the biggest in the nation, and that's part of what attracted me to CU. You're always a bit surprised when you just see all the pieces of it and understand the amazing things that each of the research teams is doing, whether it's space in Boulder, whether it's some of the breakthrough medical advances that are happening at Anschutz, whether it's what they're doing to make Denver an increasingly robust urban center at the University of Colorado Denver, whether it's the types of things they're doing with cyber at Colorado Springs. I've been digging in, learning and understanding, and at an established university, I would say the more you dig in, the more you understand what a wonderful system it is.

Mark Kennedy addressing the crowd at CU Boulder's Macky Auditorium during an April 26 event facilitated by regent Sue Sharkey. - YOUTUBE
Mark Kennedy addressing the crowd at CU Boulder's Macky Auditorium during an April 26 event facilitated by regent Sue Sharkey.
Another kind of diversity we've heard the regents and other folks talk about is intellectual diversity, and some of your critics appear to see that phrase as code for a political agenda. You took pains to say that was not your goal during the introduction process. So what does intellectual diversity mean to you, and how would it be applied to the CU system?

I would suggest that if you look at the technology we're talking about, more than half of today's traditional students, the coming-out-of-high-school students, are going to work at a job during their lifetime that has not yet been invented. If you think about how you prepare students for a job that has not yet been invented, the one thing we know we need to do is to give them as much support in developing critical thinking as possible. And I don't know how you nurture critical thinking without having conflicting ideas presented, debated, reviewed, analyzed, as opposed to just saying, "This is what it is." So nurturing critical thinking is what I perceive as being amongst the most important things education can deliver for a student, and that's done by asking questions, not making statements.

I had the joy of visiting the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science with my wife this weekend, and there's a quote by Leonardo da Vinci there that struck me. It said, "Nothing can be loved or hated unless it is first understood." There are a lot of people who may love or hate something without really understanding what they're loving and hating. And helping to broaden the perspective of all of us, and helping us to purposefully understand the other side, benefits us. It helps us to see, perhaps, the fallacies of those views — but each of them deserve respect. And that's what we as an institution need to do.

Those observations dovetail into the subject of the process under which you were chosen to lead the CU system, and how you were vetted publicly. Did you anticipate the focus on your voting record while you were a member of Congress, and the suggestion that it was somehow out of touch with the values of the university? Did that come out of left field for you? Or, if you were expecting it, did you see it as being a distraction from being able to talk about what the job of CU system president actually entails?

I would just say that I appreciate everybody's passion in wanting to be engaged with the university and having a very strong attachment to the university. I would say those issues have not come across my desk in my eight or nine years in academia and are unlikely to come across my desk in the years ahead. My commitment is to say that whatever my political views are, they are not injected in how I proceed as the president of the university. They're two completely different roles. Our role in academia is to nurture critical thinking, to make sure all sides are exposed. How you perform in a role where you are asked to make a statement two decades ago is completely different. So I don't expect those issues to be coming across my desk, and I'm confident that if people judge me by my actions, by the results we deliver at the university, those concerns will be allayed.

I would say, though, that the real issues, as I mentioned — diversity, making sure we're appealing to, attracting and graduating diverse students — is a fundamental focus of any university increasingly in the future as we move into an increasingly diverse population in the state and the nation. But the real issues that maybe weren't given as much attention as we needed to are, how do we respond to this fast-changing technology changing the workplace, changing higher education? And how do we respond to fiscal pressures that are constraining what we do because of increasing costs? Regrettably, we didn't have as much opportunity during the earlier period to focus on those issues. But know that they are central to CU and a central focus of mine, and I believe that's the same for the regents and the rest of the administration, as well.

As the president of the CU system, some of your critics have argued, you're the face of the university in the sense that you set the overall tone. That's why they felt that your voting record and your past stances on gay marriage and other issues were germane. Does that make sense to you? And do you want people to know that in many respects, your voting record from, as you noted, twenty years ago is not who you are and what you are today?

I would just say that the tone I set on those issues and the advances I made on those issues at my prior university would reflect exactly the type of tone that those people who brought that issue up would want to have. So I think you will see me as I have been — as a leader to all. You will see me as a champion for diversity. You will see me as expressing the essential nature of every university, which is to make sure that all students feel welcome and included. We do that toward the end of getting them to a graduation, with a degree in their hand, so they can go off to do great things for society, themselves and their families.

One of the issues raised about you prior to your hiring was a conflict between you and a major donor at the University of North Dakota [the Englestad Family Foundation]. But it's been reported that one of the things the family was upset about was the decision to retire the university's Fighting Sioux nickname. It strikes me that your stance — that the nickname wasn't appropriate in the 21st century — might actually endear you to a lot of people who were critical of you. Do you think that got lost in the shuffle?

I would suggest that to the extent that you say setting the right tone of inclusiveness is a vital attribute that they were looking for, and to the extent that I received pushback for setting the tone on that topic, I would say that I have a proven track record of doing what sometimes is unpopular in order to advance ideals that we should cherish as a university.

Recently, you brought aboard Angelique Foster, whose role at the University of North Dakota was controversial because of her title changing and arrangements related to her working remotely. I'm sure you realized that by choosing her for a role at the University of Colorado, and by creating a new position for her, you would bring the subject back up again. Is Ms. Foster just so outstanding that it was worth the public-relations headache that generated? Did you feel that any negative publicity was mitigated by how well the two of you will be able to work together to make the University of Colorado better?

Amongst the most important priorities that the regents had set for me was to advance the strategic plan. And amongst the special skills that Angelique brings is having worked with me to develop and advance a strategic plan, and fulfill that strategic plan element, at both George Washington University and at the University of North Dakota. In terms of skill sets and what she is, she's an exceptional talent that I think any organization would be pleased to have devoted to their priorities.

Mark Kennedy making a point during an appearance at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs in late April. - YOUTUBE
Mark Kennedy making a point during an appearance at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs in late April.
One interpretation some might have about your decision to bring in someone with whom you'd worked in the past is that you're not wholly comfortable with the staff at CU. Is that not the case?

It would be the opposite of that case. It's more that the people at CU recognized the experience she had, and that encouraged me initially to consider adding her to the mix because, given the greater scale of activity, that would be a good thing. So I have full confidence in the team at CU, and they interviewed Angelique extensively across the executive team and recommended that we proceed with bringing her aboard.

One observation I've heard from some of your critics is, "We were worried about Bruce Benson being overly partisan when he took over as CU president, but he did an outstanding job raising money for the university." Do you think the way you can win the hearts and minds of those who weren't sure about you as a choice to lead the system is to be an incredible fundraiser?

I am confident that the university will continue to be very strong in raising money, and that is one of the roles of the president. Much of the money is ultimately raised at the campus level, with the president providing good direction and providing additional support of key donors — being a closer, in many ways. I'm confident that I'll be able to advance that process and that CU will continue to be good at it under my leadership. But I'd suggest to you that in that area as well, having a strong vision, and having people recognize the university as leaning into the future and recognizing the challenges that it faces, having a strong response that is going to set out a path for even greater impact in the future, amongst other good things, also energizes donors. If that was the only reason people appreciated me, I would say they haven't necessarily focused on my role in catalyzing a common vision for the future in a way that elevates CU's rank amongst the premier universities of the world.

Bruce Benson's fundraising ability was enhanced by his ties with powerful Coloradans over the course of decades, and you're coming in as an outsider, in a sense — not a native of Colorado or someone who has been here for a long period of time. Is one of your goals to introduce yourself to those people and make strong connections with them? Or do you think the deeds and vision of the university that you've talked about will make up for you not having known and worked with them over a long period of time?

Let me first say that President Benson is an exceptional individual who was a fabulous president. He brought a range of relationships to the role that few would ever be able to match. He will be a tough act to follow, there is no doubt, and I have nothing but great things to say about President Benson. Let me also say that I don't have those contacts, but if you look at where the source of many donations comes from, it comes from the campus relationships, where the chancellors each individually play a big role, as does the president working with them. But I think what I do bring is a passion about the continued success of the University of Colorado, a passion for its vision, and a commitment to work in a collaborative fashion with not just the people within the university system itself, but the broader community: alumni, the business community, other leaders and partners around the state and the nation. I think that will make an impact in advancing the future of the university.

If fundraising is a modest portion of your job, what are the other major components? How does the position break down, and how does it perhaps differ from the public perception of what the president of the CU system does?

You would be mischaracterizing my statement if you said I thought fundraising was only a modest role of the president. It is a significant role of the president, one that I will devote significant attention to, and I have every hope that we'll be successful in advancing that with the rest of the CU team. That's amongst the most significant roles of the president. Providing the oversight of the fiscal aspects is another key role. Engaging with the legislators is a key role. But providing overall direction and oversight to make sure that the key priorities are being addressed and advanced is also amongst the key roles of a president. And I think another one is picking good talent, making sure you've got great chancellors, that they have a great team and they're empowered to move forward to address the shared priorities of the university system and the campus system.

You've talked about how you're looking to the future of the CU system with your strategic plan. I'm curious if you're also looking to the future for yourself. How do you think people will view you two or three years down the line? Will the controversy that accompanied your hiring have faded? Do you expect that your critics will be saying, "We thought one thing in the beginning, but we think something else now"?

This may be the first time in a month that someone has asked about the controversies. But I'm not overly concerned what people are going to say two years from now, because I'm more concerned about that dip in high school graduates in 2025, 2026, and what we've done now to prepare for that. So I have a much longer view than two years, and I hope the focus will be on the future. I would hope that would come, if it hasn't already come, because for the university to be successful, we have to be facing forward, not facing backward.

Is there anything I may not have asked about that you feel is important to add?

I would just say that [Kennedy's wife] Debbie and I are excited to be in Colorado. We're putting down deep roots. We're enjoying Denver and the state. We're on our way to Fort Morgan as we speak. We're going to be in Pueblo next week. A couple of weeks after that, we're going to be down in Durango. We've already gone out to Grand Junction. Getting to know the state, getting to know the people of the state, getting to know their priorities, helping to share the story of the great contributions that the University of Colorado is bringing to every corner of the state, those are the things that I'm excited about.

Since I've been here, I've also been broadly engaging all the elements of the state and the nation that are important to CU. I've met with the governor, I've met with all but one of the federal legislators at the Capitol conference in Washington. I've been to all of the campuses two or three times. I've been to a UC Health Board meeting. I've met with the collaborative governance groups for both the faculty and the staff, and I'm continuing to learn about the wonderful university to help better understand how we can create a vision that will make an even more meaningful contribution to the success of our citizens in the state.
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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