When University of Colorado regents announced their finalist for the position of CU system president, Mark Kennedy became a contentious name overnight.
The former Republican congressman’s extremely conservative record and his rocky reputation as the University of North Dakota president caused a media frenzy as skepticism clouded the regents’ search and selection process. How, many asked, did a candidate who bears an anti-civil rights voting record and who served less than three years at a non-research university, one that is less than a third the size of CU Boulder and a sixth the size of the entire CU system, become the president of an R1 institution that claims to value progressivism, inclusion and respect?
As students and faculty protested Kennedy’s nomination across CU’s four campuses, journalists demanded transparency and accountability for how regents handled the search and selection process. Regents responded with a loaded defense and doubled-down on their right to essentially run the search process as they saw fit.
Now, an article by The Colorado Independent reveals a number of more qualified candidates, some with longer experience at larger universities and some who had ties to Colorado and CU, failed to make the cut.
According to a leaked list obtained by the Independent, candidates included:
- Eric Barron, president of Pennsylvania State University, which has a student population about 50% larger than CU’s. He previously ran Florida State University and worked as a research fellow and scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.
- Michael Young, president of Texas A&M University, clerked for the late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, served as the ambassador for trade and environmental affairs during the administration of President George H.W. Bush and is an expert on trade and religious freedom.
- Debasish “Deba” Dutta, then the chancellor of Rutgers University and now the chancellor of the University of Michigan-Flint.
- Darrell Kirch, president emeritus and former longtime president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges. He worked previously as the acting scientific director of the National Institute of Mental Health, dean of the Medical College of Georgia and Penn State’s College of Medicine and CEO of Penn State’s medical center.
- Linda Bell, provost and dean of faculty at Barnard College.
- John Montford, former chancellor at the Texas Tech University system.
Kennedy, in comparison, had been president of UND for less than two years when he applied for president of Florida State University in 2018 which he was rejected for. A major reason behind his rejection centered around his conservative voting record while in Congress which includes:
- Voting against funding for stem cell research.
- Voting to restrict abortion rights and defunding women’s reproductive health care.
- Voting to require K-12 students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school and allow school prayer during the War on Terror.
- Voting to allow electronic surveillance without a warrant.
- Voting to end net neutrality.
- Voting to remove environmental protections for endangered species.
It’s obvious that Kennedy’s views do not align with CU’s community, which generated a petition with thousands of signatures to revoke his candidacy.
Regents say they picked Kennedy in part for his experience as a businessman and university leader. But his record at UND, like his time in Congress, also proves disappointing. While president, he slashed UND funding and developed a “strained relationship with faculty members and donors,” according to the Independent.
By going along with a less qualified, less experienced candidate, it’s clear that CU’s Republican-dominated Board of Regents put politics over education.
While regents employed a presidential search committee to aid in finding candidates, it too faced criticism for a lack of student representation. At first, it’s only student member was a graduate student in the conservative Center for Western Civilization, Thought and Policy. It took student outcry for regents to appoint an undergraduate from CU’s Colorado Springs’ campus to the committee, which, once it was formally charged with the presidential search, had an overwhelming majority of Republican members, according to the Independent.
The committee whittled the list of 160 candidates down to 30, then to 11 and eventually to six which they recommend to regents.
According to the Independent, regents only chose to directly interview those six candidates. Five were Republicans, some of whom served in political roles.
Further, the search firm regents used involved Republican Robert ‘Bob’ Witt, former chancellor and president of the University of Alabama who, according to al.com, helped establish a dark-money nonprofit that funneled $1.4 million of the school’s funding to political PACs benefitting Republican politicians.
“‘Bob Witt’ and ‘non-partisan’ don’t fit in the same sentence,” one university leader told the Independent.
Republican regents outvoted their Democrat colleagues 5-4 to confirm Kennedy as president in May. The CU Independent reached out to all regents following the heated period, with four responding to comment. While Republican regents John Carson and Heidi Ganahl denied any partisanship on the board, Democrat regents Irene Griego and Lesley Smith said it was quite the opposite.
“I think politics should be left at the door and should not be entering into our decision process. But unfortunately, that does not always happen,” Griego told the CUI.
Smith called the board partisan and said uniting it could be “quite challenging.”
Republican regents’ assertion that politics do not come into play makes little sense considering that their titles contain either an “R” or “D” on their website.
While political ties at CU are not unprecedented, and in many ways unavoidable due to a political board, Kennedy’s presidency is the most blatant example to date. Unfortunately, higher education institutions like CU have become mired in undue political influence.
One CU law student who helped lead the charge of protests against Kennedy told the CUI, “to act as if the regents have never been, or should not be, a political body is a joke.”
“I think that this process of electing Kennedy is a very big reflection of what happens when you allow your board of regents to be elected,” said third-year law graduate Dana Steiner in an interview following Kennedy’s confirmation in May. “(The regents) turned an apolitical position into a political fight that gained national news attention.”
By denying multiple open records requests from the Daily Camera, which ultimately forced the paper to sue, and antagonizing concerned community members, as seen by Republican Regent Chance Hill’s now-deleted Facebook rant, in which he calls students “radical leftists” upset over “token criticisms,” regents have lost the public’s trust. Instead, they have stood by their decision to select the most high-level faculty position at a public university behind closed doors.
We deserve better. It’s time to reform CU’s Board of Regents.