Last week the Grand Forks Herald reported a story about University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy pushing ahead to replace a retiring event coordinator.
That wouldn’t be noteworthy except that the University of North Dakota is, like the rest of state government, grappling with budget reductions. The campus is currently under a hiring freeze. So the university president moving to fill a position that has, among its various job duties, pouring drinks at the presidents events is a tone deaf decision.
Which is not what many observers expected from Kennedy, a former Republican member of the U.S. Congress. I think the expectations most had was that Kennedy would be better at managing the political scrutiny which comes along with such a prominent public post.
Kennedy, clearly irritated by the Herald story, followed up on it with a letter to the editor defending the move because he once saw former President George W. Bush pour drinks at an event. Which only dug the hole a little deeper for Kennedy, because it made people wonder why Kennedy can’t also pour his own drinks during this time of belt tightening.
“I cringed when I read it,” a SAB reader and Kennedy supporter who was a member of the hiring committee which selected Kennedy as a finalist for hire by the State Board of Higher Education.
I like President Kennedy. He hasn’t been on the job all that long, but I think he’s been saying the right things about what needs to change at UND. He’s even shown a willingness to go after sacred cows on campus like athletics.
But he will not be an effective leader for UND if he follows in the footsteps of his colleague, President Dean Bresciani at NDSU.
Bresciani has inspired a great deal of enmity with the public at large because of gaffes similar to Kennedy’s.
In the past he’s flown to Bismarck in his university’s private airplane, at a cost of thousands of dollars per flight, to argue that his school is underfunded. Bresciani has (or, at least, had) a personal chauffeur and body man on the payroll. During a recent trip to India, Bresciani billed his school for luxury flight arrangements which cost thousands of dollars more than a coach ticket. When that sparked controversy, Bresciani asked the school’s supposedly private foundation to cover the tab.
Today Bresciani clings to his job today only because of the clout of Fargo business interests, politically-connected alumni, and fanatics in the Cult of Bison Football. But he has done much to burnish the public’s perception of university presidents as pampered, out-of-touch profligates.
But Bresciani’s biggest problem is his condescending attitude toward his critics. Rather than engaging, and working to find common ground, Bresciani condemns from on high.
Which is sort of the tactic Kennedy deployed in response to this recent criticism.
He ought to choose a different tactic.
Everyone makes mistakes, but a mark of good leadership lays in how mistakes are handled. Kennedy handled this one poorly. Like Bresciani would.
Let’s hope he does better in the future.