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Amid Growing Criticism, University of Colorado Regents Defend Presidential Search Process

April 13, 2019

The search process for a new University of Colorado system president, which began in September, is coming under fire after the Board of Regents put forth a sole finalist, University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy. Some in the CU community are concerned about Kennedy’s past voting record, his actions in previous positions and the criticisms they are hearing from people in North Dakota.

While students and faculty are criticizing the search process for a lack of transparency and thoroughness , CU system spokesman Ken McConnellogue said that’s not accurate.

“There was no secrecy, there was no lack of transparency. It’s clearly outlined in regent law and policy. It was clearly communicated to the university community,” he said. “There are parts of the process where the confidentiality of the candidates is important, so you just can’t say things. That’s just not the reality of how these searches work.”

Board of Regents Chair Sue Sharkey, R-Castle Rock, on Thursday said the search committee included representatives from across the CU community, so the wider university community did get to participate through those representatives.

Meanwhile, Regent Linda Shoemaker, D-Boulder, said a North Dakota newspaper story on Kennedy being the sole finalist hastened the board’s process and forced it to make an announcement earlier than originally planned, which was first reported Thursday by The Denver Post .

‘No mystery’

McConnellogue said “there’s no mystery” in how the search process works, since it is described in regent law and policy.

Community members had the opportunity to nominate themselves or others for the position until Oct. 8, and the presidential search committee was appointed on Oct. 24 . It consisted of two regents (Heidi Ganahl, R-at large and Irene Griego, D-Lakewood) who co-chaired the committee; deans of schools, colleges or libraries; faculty and staff members; students; alumni; and community members.

The committee then discussed its mission and how it would handle the task. In October, it selected Wheless Partners to assist in the search . The firm received a $99,000 flat fee, with the possible payment of up to $25,000 for additional fees.

McConnellogue said the firm recruited candidates and provided a way for people to promote candidates. Among the 160 applicants was Kennedy, who was recruited, according to Sharkey.

Wheless Partners narrowed down the list, removing those who weren’t qualified and presented 30 candidates to the search committee.

The committee then narrowed the pool to about 10 people, McConnellogue said. All were interviewed for 90 minutes before the committee chose six to present to the regents.

Along the way, reference checks were conducted, McConnellogue said.

“The further you went down the funnel” in the process, he said, “the greater the level of scrutiny.”

Regents, in executive session, interviewed the six semi-finalists for two hours each. McConnellogue said there is no policy that dictates a required length for interviews.

While the board is recorded when it meets in executive session, the recordings are exempted from being made public under state open records laws. McConnellogue said he doesn’t believe the regents will release those recordings.

Shoemaker said the interviews lasted 12 hours over a day and a half, followed by a half-day executive session and a public session over the next few days.

“It is what it is, it was what it was,” she said. “We now have much more time to talk to him and consider him.”

What is relevant?

The six candidates consisted of three academics, one businessperson and two former Republican politicians, according to Shoemaker.

“I think the search committee worked primarily for the Republican majority (on the board of regents),” she said.

Shoemaker nominated Bill Ritter, a former Democratic governor of Colorado and Denver district attorney. He was considered by the committee, but wasn’t brought forward to the regents, she said, calling it disappointing.

The Republican majority on the board wanted to put forth one of the two Republican politicians, which included Kennedy, and Shoemaker said: “I considered the other one to be even worse.”

While the board had already chosen Kennedy as its sole finalist to replace Bruce Benson, leaks to the press in Grand Forks, N.D., forced it to announce its choice earlier than expected, she said.

Shoemaker said she is know learning things about Kennedy that staff and the search firm did not share in the earlier stages of the process.

When asked why some things were not shared with the board, Shoemaker said it came down to what the staff and firm felt was relevant.

“Are votes that a person took in Congress when they were a political representative for a very conservative district during the early 2000s relevant? ... It’s certainly relevant to me, and that’s why I’m really interested to hear how he answers questions on the campuses,” she said.

However, Shoemaker said she has not yet decided how she will vote in May on Kennedy’s hiring. She thinks Kennedy should have an opportunity to respond to concerns, and she plans to attend his campus visits and see what the community thinks.

In the meantime, CU system staff next week will visit North Dakota to talk with people about Kennedy, and they will continue checking references. The purpose of naming a finalist, Shoemaker said, is to open the process up for feedback.

“Right now we need to ratchet down the level of angst, in my opinion,” she said.

Some in the CU community are concerned the board did not do its due diligence.

“I’m just really disappointed in the regents as framing him as bipartisan when he’s not, as being a successful businessman when he’s not,” said Brian Keegan, assistant professor of information science at CU Boulder. ”... It just suggests to me that there was absolutely no due diligence done. I think it’s a failure on the part of the regents, and more of a failure on the part of the executive search firm who tried to push this candidate through.”

‘Rose to the top’

No other candidates were chosen as finalists, according to McConnellogue.

When asked what the board would do if it does not vote to appoint Kennedy president, McConnellogue said he did not want to address a hypothetical, as did Sharkey.

“Right now he is the finalist, and that’s what we’re focusing on,” McConnellogue said.

Shoemaker said naming a finalist doesn’t mean the regents are locked into choosing him. The board could name another finalist after considering Kennedy, she said.

She would have preferred naming more than one finalist for the job, but said there aren’t many people who are willing to be part of a pool of finalists.

Board of Regents Vice Chair Jack Kroll, D-Denver, on Thursday said if Kennedy is chosen as the new president, “the board can revisit his status at any time.”

Sharkey on Thursday said the board “would’ve chosen more than one finalist if we were compelled to think, ‘We aren’t quite sure.’

“He absolutely rose to the top and there was no interest in presenting any other finalists.”

Madeline St. Amour: 303-684-5212, mstamour@prairiemountainmedia.com