Yesterday new University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy dropped something of a bomb on his athletics department. In an email he announced that there could be more cuts coming for the athletics department, including dropping more sports programs and a change in the school’s conference affiliation.
It was big news, but while Athletic Director Brian Faison was quoted extensively in Grand Forks Herald reporter Brad Schlossman’s story about the announcement, Kennedy himself was not. Because he wasn’t on campus. He was on a tour of western North Dakota:
— Mark Kennedy (@HonMarkKennedy) August 16, 2016
Kennedy’s unavailability drew the ire of reporter another Herald reporter, Tom Miller, who took the president to task in a column. When I praised Miller’s column on Twitter, Kennedy himself responded suggesting that Miller had left out the fact that he would have answered emailed questions.
Miller said he wasn’t interested in discussing the issue via email, with a back up from Herald editor Steve Wagner.
You can read the whole exchange below. It ended with Kennedy saying he’d make an appointment for an interview with the Herald and Wagner saying he looked forward to the chat.
I think there are some important take-aways from this kerfuffle.
First, while Kennedy made the wrong choice in making such a big announcement via email when he was off campus and unavailable for in-person interviews, he did get it right in the end. He engaged his critics directly instead of stonewalling them. He seemed to acknowledge the mistake. And it appears as though he’s correcting it.
This is like a breath of fresh air compared to what we’ve seen in the past from presidents in North Dakota’s university system. I don’t think we ever could have expected a similar sort of response from Kennedy’s predecessor Robert Kelly. Certainly this stands in stark contrast to how North Dakota State President Dean Bresciani had handled recent controversy.
Sure, Kennedy made a mistake in how this was handled. That happens. What’s more important is that he seems willing to learn from his mistakes (so far, anyway). Meaning that maybe he won’t keep making them over and over again (I’m looking at you, Bresciani).
Kennedy is taking over from interim President Ed Schafer who did a masterful job of engaging the media and critics when announcing similar cuts and budget reforms. That’s the template he needs to follow.
I hope he does.
Second, so far I’m supportive of where Kennedy is heading in terms of policy. Athletics programs at UND – much like at every university in America – do not make money. They represent a significant cost to the university, and thus to students and taxpayers.
Put another way, athletics inflate the cost of getting an education at the University of North Dakota by hundreds of dollars per student, per year. That should be unacceptable.
Even absent the budget shortfalls UND is facing it would be prudent to, at the very least, give athletics a thorough pruning. But with UND’s budget in the red as part of an overall state budget which is also in the red, athletics should be first on the chopping block.
Because what public universities like UND exist for is academics. Not to playing host to sports teams. If I had my way we’d all athletics (except the strictly recreational/fitness stuff) completely off campus. They’re a distraction from the core mission of the universities. But since that’s a pipe dream, I’ll settle for moving them down the priority list.
Here is the aforementioned Twitter discussion: