Why So Many People Hate the Idea of Mark Kennedy as Next CU President

Mark Kennedy is the sole finalist for the position of University of Colorado president.
Mark Kennedy is the sole finalist for the position of University of Colorado president.
Today at noon on the University of Colorado Boulder campus, a rally will protest the Board of Regents' choice of Mark Kennedy to become the next president of the four-campus CU system. The event (details below) should be the showiest display of displeasure after the Board of Regents unanimously named Kennedy, a onetime businessman and former Republican member of Congress who has served as the University of North Dakota's president during the past two years, as the sole finalist for the position.

But it won't be the last.

Indeed, plenty of CU stakeholders are lining up against Kennedy owing largely to a congressional voting record that's described by United Mexican American Students y Movimiento Estudiantil Chincanx de Azlán and CU Young Democratic Socialists of America, the two groups sponsoring the rally, as "anti-queer, anti-union, anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-public education, anti-environment, anti-Palestine, anti-science, anti-civil rights."

Although an "Open Letter to the Regents of the University of Colorado," written collaboratively by a group that includes Julie Carr, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in CU Boulder's English department, uses more polite language, it makes many of the same points, positing that "Mr. Kennedy appears to be a divisive administrator with troubled relations to the public and to the media — not someone who would maintain CU’s academic rankings and public image, or bring together our diverse students, staff and faculty."

A physical copy of the letter is slated for delivery to the regents' office at 10:30 a.m. today, April 15, complete with 4,626 signatures broken down as follows: 1,869 students, 968 alumni, 434 faculty members, 287 parents, 239 staffers, 182 residents and 647 who didn't identify their affiliations. The document went online April 12, with signatures rising significantly after Kennedy released his own open letter through CU later that day (in it, he insists that his views about same-sex marriage, which led to him voting in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban it, have "evolved"), and jumping up again following a joint statement from regent chair Sue Sharkey and vice chair Jack Kroll. In their missive, the pair defended the hiring process, stressing that the regents "all thought Mark was the best pick" and calling for people to be open-minded about the matter. In words certain to have struck some critics as judgmental and condemnatory, they maintained that "listening and thinking critically before forming opinions are the hallmarks of a great university."

By the way, Westword reached out to Sharkey, Kroll and the other seven regents last week, but none of them replied over a three-day period — a universal silence that suggests the members are belatedly trying to stay on message. Prior to this, however, Regent Lesley Smith, a Democrat on a panel whose majority is Republican, tweeted, "Some information about Mark has come to light that is concerning; my colleagues and I will be exploring this further." And fellow Dem regent Linda Shoemaker told the Denver Post, "We need the press and the public to do the job of vetting him."

Ken McConnellogue, the CU system's vice president for communications, echoes the Sharkey-Kroll letter in pushing back against the idea that the regents didn't properly investigate Kennedy's stands on assorted positions. But Deep Badhesha, president of the CU law school class of 2020 who's also working with various student organizations to prevent Kennedy's hiring, scoffs at the idea that anyone could be in the dark about Kennedy's past votes. "That makes me want to ask, 'Do you not have Google?'" he says. "I found out about his record in five seconds."

Before enrolling at CU law, Badhesha attended Colorado State University, and he highlights a popular meme that contrasts recently named CSU president Joyce McConnell and Kennedy. The McConnell item reads: "As provost and vice president for academic affairs at West Virginia University, led initiatives to improve gender equity and Title IX education and compliance. Promoted diversity and inclusion across the University." The Kennedy passage counters: "As a congressman, voted in favor of a bill to constitutionally define marriage as between a man and a woman. He also voted to restrict abortion rights. ACLU gave him a rating of 7 percent on civil rights issues."

click to enlarge This meme contrasts newly hired Colorado State University president Joyce McConnell and Mark Kennedy. - TWITTER
This meme contrasts newly hired Colorado State University president Joyce McConnell and Mark Kennedy.
The open letter in opposition to Kennedy's hiring includes a roster of other bills that Kennedy sponsored or co-sponsored as a U.S. Representative from Minnesota from 2001 to 2007. Here are some excerpts:
H.R.6209, Religious Freedom for Providers of Adoption, Foster Care, and Child Welfare Services Act: Amends the Social Security Act to prohibit federal payments for foster care and adoption assistance to a state or local government that discriminates against any entity that provides adoption or foster care services to only those couples who are united in marriage (defined as a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife) and to only those individuals whose conduct is in accordance with such entity's religious principles and practices.

H.R.6099, Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act of 2006: Require an abortion provider who knowingly performs an abortion of a pain-capable unborn child (defined as an unborn child who has reached a probable stage of development of 20 weeks or more after fertilization), to first: (1) inform the woman of the probable age of the child; (2) provide to the woman an Unborn Child Pain Awareness Brochure (unless she waives receipt); (3) provide information that pain medicine administered to the mother may not prevent pain in the child, but in some cases anesthesia or pain-reducing drugs can be administered directly to the child; (4) give the woman the provider's best medical judgment of the risks and costs of such anesthesia or analgesic; and (5) obtain the woman's signature on the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Decision Form and her explicit request for or refusal of the administration of drugs to the child.

H.R.5295, Student and Teacher Safety Act of 2006: Requires local educational agencies to [permit] a search of any minor student on public school grounds if conducted by a full-time teacher or school official

H.R.5255, American Flag Display Protection Act — Prohibits an elementary school, secondary school, or institution of higher education from receiving federal funds by grant or contract if the school has a policy or practice preventing students from respectfully displaying or wearing a representation of the U.S. flag

H.R.3144, Respect for Life Pluripotent Stem Cell Act of 2005 - Prohibits research under this Act that: (1) involves the use of human embryos; (2) involves the use of stem cells not otherwise eligible for NIH funds; (3) involves the use of any stem cell to create or to attempt to create a human embryo; or (4) poses a significant risk of creating a human embryo by any means.
Carr highlights Kennedy's stem-cell position as one that could have serious repercussions at CU. "It's concerning for biologists and others who work on stem-cell research," she says. "And it's coming from a position in which he's been quoted as saying he's 100 percent pro-life — meaning 100 percent anti-reproductive rights."

To CU spokesman McConnellogue, such worries are unfounded. "We do have researchers on the Anschutz Medical Campus who do stem-cell research," he confirms. "But the president of the university has no bearing on that. Those researchers have academic freedom, and the president would never say to them, 'Don't do that, because I'm personally opposed to this.'"

As evidence, McConnellogue points out that "the past two CU presidents, Bruce Benson and Hank Brown, have been conservative Republicans. Hank was a U.S. senator and Bruce ran for governor [in 1994], was the Republican state party chairman and also an oil and gas man. Could you have selected a more polarizing candidate? But look at the job he's done over the past eleven years. I'm biased, but I think he's been one of the most successful presidents CU has ever had. He's gotten us through some pretty hard times and positioned us extremely well for the future."

More to the point, the specific issues for which Kennedy is being pilloried "just don't come up on a day-to-day basis," McConnellogue insists. "I wouldn't say the same about LGBT issues, because they are part of larger university issues of an inclusive environment. But our policies against discrimination and harassment are all pretty well established."

click to enlarge A graphic created for an April 15 rally co-hosted by United Mexican American Students y Movimiento Estudiantil Chincanx de Azlán and the CU Young Democratic Socialists of America. - TWITTER
A graphic created for an April 15 rally co-hosted by United Mexican American Students y Movimiento Estudiantil Chincanx de Azlán and the CU Young Democratic Socialists of America.
McConnellogue confirms that CU's revelation of the Kennedy choice was made sooner than had been planned because "a newspaper in North Dakota got wind of rumors and was determined to run with the story. That hastened things for us." But he doesn't think CU should have implied that the vetting of Kennedy was still ongoing: "You don't want to let a newspaper story drive that," he allows — and besides, "the regents were at a point in the process where they had determined to move him forward as a finalist."

Kennedy's past was explored in great detail, McConnellogue argues: "An amount of formal and informal reference and background checking happened every step along the way with every candidate, and frankly, the deeper we got into the process, the deeper that went. When we got down to ten candidates, we didn't do reference-checking, but we did some pretty good background checking. When we got down to six, it went a little further, and when we got down to one, it went as far as it had to go."

The conversation with regents didn't dissect Kennedy's congressional record bill by bill, he acknowledges, "but he's got a public record on same-sex marriage and stem-cell research, and the board discussed those issues with him, along with other things that are pertinent to the university."

The perception is that Kennedy "will be the leader of the Boulder campus," McConnellogue continues, "but that's not the job at all. The president is the CEO of a $4.5 billion enterprise with four campuses [the Anschutz Medical facility plus satellites in Denver and Colorado Springs]. And one of the reasons the regents so enthusiastically put him forward was his combination of experience. He worked with some pretty high-level businesses, Macy's and General Mills, and he has also worked in government and higher education. That's the kind of trifecta that got the board excited about Mark's candidacy, and those are the things that have the most bearing on the job — not at all minimizing the idea that the president of the university is really the face of the university."

This last duty is one that stands out for the authors of the open letter. After the blue wave that swept over Colorado during the 2018 elections, the CU Board of Regents is arguably the most significant statewide panel that's Republican-controlled, and the choices of Brown, Benson and Kennedy strike them as inherently political whether the members want to admit it or not. 

In Carr's words, "The University of Colorado, like all universities in the U.S. right now, is a battleground for issues, as you can see by the Center for Western Civilization, Thought & Policy," a privately funded, right-leaning institute on the CU campus. "Clearly, this is part of an attempt to make sure that the university has a diversity of political perspective. So since that's a goal, then it's clearly a political choice to try to hire a strongly conservative Republican. But it's one thing to be an active member of the Republican Party, and another thing to have such a far-right voting record. Because of that, people are going to be referencing his voting record and considering his actions in terms of his politics. If they didn't want us to be thinking about their candidate as a politician, they shouldn't have chosen a politician."

The process of picking Kennedy was politicized, too, Badhesha says, noting that early on, leaders of the CU law school wanted a student representative to be appointed to the search committee. But instead of anointing the school's nominee, who had a Democratic background, the student selected also happened to be a staff member at (wait for it) the Center for Western Civilization. Only after complaints from the law school was another student added — this one from CU's Colorado Springs branch, he says.

When Badhesha looked into Kennedy, he was shocked by what he characterizes as his "absolutely abysmal voting record. He's anti LGBTQIA, anti-women's rights. I think it would have been fine if they'd appointed a Republican who was reasonable, but someone with his crazy voting record raised red flags right away." After doing his research, Badhesha immediately began corresponding with other student leaders, and he predicts that the rally later today will only be the beginning of protests against Kennedy.

Whether any of these efforts can make the regents blink is another question. Kennedy will begin a series of visits to CU campuses the week of April 22, and after he does so, McConnellogue says the regents are expected to cast ballots; under Colorado law, such a vote can take place once fourteen days since his naming as a finalist have elapsed. Because approval requires only a simple majority, a solid Republican bloc would win the day even if all the Democrats switch the direction of their thumbs from up to down.

In Badhesha's mind, the one thing that might change this equation is cash. "We're contacting donors," he says, "because the university listens to donors above anyone else."

Today's rally against Mark Kennedy will get under way at noon on CU Boulder's Norlin Quad, with other events in the works through April 26. Click for more details.
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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