The Hiring Process for Mark Kennedy Cost North Dakotans Nearly $50,000 for Each Year He Actually Worked


UND President Mark Kennedy is interviewed Tuesday in his Twamley Hall office. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

In recent years, when it’s come time to hire for a high-profile position in North Dakota’s state government, our public servants have increasingly turned to expensive private consultants.

These firms conduct national searches and return to the decision makers a list of candidates.

This is an expensive process, and it’s success are inconsistent at best.

The search which resulted in the hire of outgoing University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy cost taxpayers nearly $140,000, or more than $46,000 for each year he actually held that position (years, in retrospect, he seems to have mostly spent looking for jobs elsewhere).

Former NDUS Chancellor Hamid Shirvani was also hired after big money was spent to a private consulting firm. He lasted less than a year. North Dakota taxpayers had to pony up some $925,000 to make him go away.

Here’s the list of the search candidates for some of the most recent hires in the North Dakota University System:

  • UND, 2016 – $139,907
  • North Dakota University System chancellor, 2015 – $83,943
  • Dickinson State University, 2015 – $85,221
  • Valley City State University, 2014 – $82,078
  • Minot State University, 2013 – $87,759
  • Lake Region State College, 2012 – $78,962

Not every hire made through this process has been bad, but the process is expensive, and the batting average isn’t great.

So why keep doing it?

That’s what State Board of Higher Education member Dan Traynor is arguing, even as leadership in the state university system pushes forward with the same-old-same-old process:

While the head of the North Dakota University System and the leader of the State Board of Higher Education map out the search process to replace outgoing UND President Mark Kennedy, at least one member would like the board to try a slightly different route.

In an email addressed to NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott on May 7, SBHE member Dan Traynor said he had read news reports regarding the procedure for selecting a new UND president. Traynor said he was “not entirely comfortable with the idea of hiring an interim for a year and proceeding with yet another search.”

He argues that contracting with expensive, out-of-state consultants with little feel for the realities of living and working in North Dakota is a bad way to hire:

Traynor, who has been on the board for about a year and was not part of the 2016 presidential search, said in emails that he understands “several of the identified locally-connected candidates did not pursue the position because of the rigmarole associated with the whole search process” in 2016. He also was told the 2016 search cost around $100,000.

Traynor’s email goes on to state he is “concerned that the nationwide search firms with whom the NDUS has arrangements have little or no connection to the state of North Dakota.” He notes that there are at least two firms located in Bismarck that perform executive searches and wondered if there are other firms elsewhere in the state. Traynor said those firms need to be considered for any and all searches for NDUS institutions.

Traynor said the “repeated process of short-term presidents” followed by another search is “harmful” to the state’s flagship institution.

“After years of short-term presidents, I think UND needs some stability,” he wrote. “Keep in mind that the campus mood has been on edge for several years as the current president was known as a ‘looker’ and has been using UND as a stepping stone. I believe a more North Dakota-centric search will result in a pool of finalists that have a connection to the state or the university and will be much more likely to stay on the job.”

Even Traynor is underestimating the cost. He says here he thinks the hiring process for Kennedy cost around $100,000. It was actually nearly $140,000.

Again, why keep doing this?

Don’t we have qualified people already working in the North Dakota University System, or in state government, or living in the state, who can help us find a new leader for UND? People who won’t cost us the proverbial arm and leg? People with some skin in the game when it comes to ensuring that whoever we hire sticks around and does a good job?