University of North Dakota president aims to learn, earn and serve

Mark Kennedy, about to become president of University of Colorado, leverages a background in business and politics to build a premier research institution

GRAND FORKS, N.D.—Mark Kennedy’s mother did not go to college. The homemaker and one-time homesteader had hardly traveled outside the Upper Midwest, not even to nearby Canada, he says.

Despite his father’s $18,000 insurance agent’s salary, Kennedy and his six siblings got $500 each to pay for college tuition. Then, his mother scraped together another $500 to fund what she felt would be a critical component of her son’s higher education.

“She could not understand how you could have a liberal arts education in the 1970s without studying abroad,” Kennedy said, during an interview in November, of the time he spent in the Netherlands during graduate school.

Kennedy, named president of the University of Colorado in May, has since traveled the world several times over—first as a business acquisitions executive, then as a U.S. congressman and now as president of the University of North Dakota. He describes this trajectory as the “learn, earn, serve” model, with each stage of his life informing the next.

“My view is that life is a million-piece puzzle,” says Kennedy, who faced resistance from University of Colorado faculty and others over his qualifications and conservative voting record while in Congress. “It becomes more interesting the more puzzle pieces you have and the more diversity you get from a liberal arts education.”

Business lessons: How to buy Haagen-Dazs

Kennedy’s roots in education can be traced back to the 27 years his father spent on a central Minnesota school board. In high school and college, Kennedy participated in several extracurricular activities—including choir and coed volleyball.
But he fell short of becoming a straight-A student at Saint John’s University in Minnesota. “I was a first-generation college graduate; no one told me how vitally important grades were,” he says.
Again, his mother steered him in a new direction, convincing him to switch his major from his first passion, history, to accounting. Eventually, he achieved the second-highest GPA at the University of Michigan’s business school and landed his first job—with the Minneapolis-based Pillsbury Company, which was growing through acquisitions. His first project was to manage the $85 million acquisition of a small New Jersey ice cream producer with a made-up, Danish-sounding name—Haagen-Dazs. His corporate career continued at Macy’s and Federated Department Stores, where Kennedy became treasurer of one of America’s largest companies at age 31.

Leader at a glance

Mark Kennedy, president of the University of North Dakota since 2016, grew up in Minnesota

Undergraduate study: St. John’s University (Collegeville, Minn.)

Graduate degree: MBA, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business

On the way up:

Business: Executive with several firms, including Pillsbury, Macy’s and Accenture Politics; U.S. House of Representatives, 2001-07, for Minnesota’s 2nd and 6th districts

Higher ed: George Washington University, 2012-16, professor and director of the Graduate School of Political Management; Executive-in-residence, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School

Time for politics

Kennedy faced an uphill battle when attempting a shift from business to politics. A challenger has about a one chance in 100 of beating an incumbent congressman, he says.

Victory in Minnesota’s rural 2nd Congressional District also would have meant a major pay cut. Yet in 2000, Kennedy, a Republican, beat the four-term, Democratic incumbent by just 155 votes.

He worked on the agriculture and transportation committees, writing farm bills and legislation to strengthen the nation’s highway system, he says.
When his hometown was moved into a more suburban district, Democrats chose a candidate who was able to outspend him a ratio of 2-to-1. He won by 22 points in a district that President George W. Bush had only won by 4 points in 2000. He traveled to Iraq, where, among having other realizations, he decided food should not be used as a weapon. He later cast a decisive vote in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement (now known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) and supported other trade bills that resulted in improved relations with more than a dozen countries. “I am irrecoverably pro-trade,” says Kennedy, one of whose sons is a Navy pilot. “If goods don’t cross borders, militaries will.”

His political career ended when he lost a U.S. Senate race to Amy Klobuchar, the 2020 presidential candidate who still holds the seat.

When he was in Congress, it had a 50 percent approval rating. The rating has since plummeted, and Kennedy blames partisan rancor. “Politics is not gridlock; politics is the art of bringing people together to get things done,” he says. “Gridlock is policy purism, and the solution is politics. Nobody is practicing politics right now.”

‘Focus to Finish First’

The former executive and congressman did not slide right into a college president’s seat. A few years after leaving Capitol Hill, he taught—as an adjunct—a class on government-business relations at the University of Maryland. He then did research at the University of Pennsylvania, served as the executive-in-residence at the Johns Hopkins University graduate school of business, and was recruited by The George Washington University to lead its Graduate School of Political Management. He also traveled the world delivering his “Focus to Finish First” lecture.

“Because the world is so global, you have no choice but to be No. 1 at what you do,” he says, adding that this philosophy drives his goal to make UND the premier flagship university on the northern Plains.

However, shortly before Kennedy took the reins in 2016, his predecessor, an interim president, had to cut the university’s budget by 25 percent. After just one month on the job, Kennedy was forced to cut spending by another 5 percent. At the same time, the athletic department also faced a financial shortfall, and a global controversy erupted over a first-year student’s use of a racial slur on a Snapchat post.

Welcome to the top job, right? Well, leading a public university engages all three sides of his career, Kennedy says. The university is most like a business in that it is the fifth largest employer in the state. He leverages his political skills in working with elected leaders and community organizations to maintain or hopefully boost the university’s financial support. In partnership with his closest athletic and academic rival—North Dakota State University—Kennedy recently urged the state to invest $100 million in higher ed research.

Advanced visions

After experiencing major budget cuts for both academics and athletics, President Mark Kennedy led administrators, faculty and students in focusing the University of North Dakota’s mission. The result was the five tenets of UND’s Grand Challenge.

1. Promote energy security and environmental sustainability.

2. Address health challenges through basic, clinical and translational discovery.

3. Help rural communities solve their unique health and social problems.

4. Drive the world-changing developments of unmanned aerial systems (drones), and do so in a way that reflects UND’s values.

5. Effectively, efficiently and ethically produce, manage and use information securely in the age of big data.

“I came here in part because North Dakota is the second-largest oil-producing state in the country,” he says. “We can be a premier research university if we can get the state behind the idea. The state has the natural resources.”

He wanted those initial cuts to be done judiciously, so he began a strategic planning process that included administrators as well as faculty and student leaders. The process—which included the controversial elimination of the women’s hockey team—resulted in a grant challenge that covers environmental sustainability, rural health, data management and innovation in unmanned aerial systems.

Online innovations

Kennedy has prepared for substantial growth in online learning, which currently attracts more older professionals looking to boost their skills and credentials. At UND, however, traditional-age students are increasingly adding an online course to their on-campus course loads, with an eye toward amassing graduation credits more quickly.

That means online instruction must be as highly interactive as on-campus learning experiences, making the programs more costly and only viable if they can be delivered at scale, Kennedy says.

Related at UB Tech®—Five sessions on online learning in the Instructional Technology track. Details

UND has a new online degree in cybersecurity, and will continue launching additional online programs as the existing ones become financially sustainable. The goal is to position UND as an online leader in what may become a highly competitive market, he says. “We’re looking to be strong enough online that if online consolidates, it consolidates toward UND.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor of UB.

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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