New University Of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy Seems To Get It


NDSU president Dean Bresciani congratulates Mark Kennedy after being selected as the next president of the University of North Dakota Tuesday afternoon. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

There are a lot of problems in North Dakota’s system of public universities, but if I had to describe the root problem driving everything else I would say it is a preference for quantity over quality. A desire to build little bureaucratic empires, to justify bigger campuses and bigger budgets and lavish perks, based not on the value the schools provide their students and the state but how many students can be jammed onto campus.

For many university presidents it seems as though students are little more than a deliver mechanism for tax dollars and government-backed tuition money.

So it was refreshing, then, when I heard new University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy say this yesterday:

When asked his position on more stringent admission standards, Kennedy noted a goal set by former UND President Robert Kelley of increasing enrollment by 1,000 students conflicts with NDUS goals of improving retention and graduation rates.

“We need to make sure we’re attracting the best and the brightest but it shouldn’t be UND’s role to attract every student in the state,” he said.

As Kennedy notes, that’s a departure from Kelley’s approach, and it’s certainly the exact opposite of North Dakota State President Dean Bresciani’s push to boost his enrollment by 24 percent, to 18,000 students.

A push that’s been criticized by lawmakers and university system Chancellor Mark Hagerott.

If your priority in education is packing students on campus, and into the state’s college towns, then boosting enrollment makes sense. The university makes more money. The businesses that rent apartments and sell stuff to students make money. But should those really the goals of our public universities?

With the on-time graduation rate for NDSU and UND hovering at about 25 percent of students, and the six year rate hovering at about 50 percent of students, there seems to be plenty of room to improve how existing students are being served.

That should be the goal. Not indiscriminate expansion for expansion’s sake.

Kennedy wasn’t my top pick for UND president. I was pulling for current Minot State University President Steve Shirley, who has deep ties to the state and a track record of success in the university system, but didn’t dare speak out about it lest my endorsement doom his bid.

But Kennedy, at least so far, seems like a good consolation prize. He’s saying some of the right things, anyway.