Editorial: CU should learn from mistakes in Kennedy hiring

The shaky two-year tenure of University of Colorado president Mark Kennedy should serve as a warning for the CU Board of Regents as they consider his replacement.

Kennedy was named to the powerful position in May 2019 (see related story). He oversaw campuses in Boulder, Aurora, Colorado Springs and Denver, but his tenure was marred by a secretive hiring process that named him the sole finalist, despite a state law in effect at the time requiring that names of all finalists be available to the public.

No one believes that Kennedy was the “sole finalist” for the position, and, despite a new, ill-advised state law that allows the university to name a single finalist, the Board of Regents should resist that urge. 

A secretive hiring process largely doomed Kennedy’s tenure, with faculty, staff, students and alumni largely excluded from the deliberations, unable to view alternative candidates, and without time to delve into Kennedy’s strengths and weaknesses. The Regents did themselves — and the university community — a disservice by not being more open about the process and what candidates they were considering.

Opponents pointed to Kennedy’s views on abortion, same-sex marriage and other issues as drawbacks to his hiring, pointing to statements he made while serving as a Republican congressman from Minnesota.

An open process would have brought such concerns to light before the hiring was announced.

Kennedy’s Republican background was not the issue, as evidenced by the tenure of another former Republican politician, Hank Brown, who led the university from 2005 to 2008 in what was largely considered a successful tenure.

Brown served in the U.S. House of Representatives and as a U.S. senator, but he was able to step into the role at CU when the university faced numerous scandals and controversies.

While Brown confronted such issues head-on, Kennedy never gained traction or trust with his university constituents. It got so bad that the Boulder Faculty Assembly voted in April to censure him for a  “failure of leadership with respect to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

To his credit, Kennedy responded to the censure with a promise to continue to work on the issues.

“Advancing diversity, equity and inclusion is among the top priorities for the Board of Regents, me, the campus chancellors and the university community,” Kennedy said in a statement at the time. “I welcome both constructive criticism and active engagement to help move that priority forward. I believe we are making progress, and I am committed to our ongoing work.”

But it was too late, and Kennedy did the right thing by agreeing to step down.

Now, the Board of Regents has a choice to make: Continue down a secretive road (that descended into partisanship) or embrace openness and a sincere commitment to hire a university president capable of leading the disparate voices of faculty, staff, students, alumni and citizens.

This time, the university must get it right.

Mark Kennedy. Jonathan Castner / For BizWest