UND President Goes High-Falutin’ … And There Is Silence

The pitchforks are being sharpened and the torches soaked in kerosene, we presume.

What else should we expect from the great state of North Dakota now that a university president has overstepped his bounds as a humble public servant?

We should expect the angry mobs behind their keyboards and their desks at the state capitol to come out strongly against University of North Dakota president Mark Kennedy any moment now, ripping him to pieces for arrogance, aloofness and elitism.

Any moment now …

Pretty soon …

Stand by …

No? Not today?

OK.

This is surprising. Because when Kennedy decided he was going to hire an event coordinator in the midst of shrinking budgets and cutbacks at UND, it was the perfect storm of a high-falutin’ academic (even though Kennedy isn’t an academic as much as a former politician) acting all fancy and rich when the rest of the state is in belt-tightening mode.

This usually means pitchforks and torches time in humble North Dakota.

The Grand Forks Herald, to its everlasting credit, reported a story last week that the UND president’s office was seeking to replace a retiring event coordinator and assistant to Kennedy’s wife. The position would entail “picking up all the necessary supplies for events hosted by UND President Mark Kennedy and first lady Debbie Kennedy, managing invitations and RSVPs and ‘(serving)’ as bartender for UND football and hockey suite events,” the Herald wrote.

A personal assistant of sorts, in other words.

Which raises its own question: If Debbie Kennedy is not an employee of UND, how can public tax dollars be used so she can have an assistant? Not sure about that one.

The position would pay more than $60,000 per year, plus benefits. That’s a nice salary in North Dakota, particularly when the president has been busy girding the university for further budget cuts. Last week, news broke that UND’s law school was going to be hit hard by reductions. These are tough times in higher ed.

Kennedy, who wanted to be known as The Honorable Mark Kennedy when he came to North Dakota because he preferred that prefix to his name based on his years as a Minnesota Congressman, replied by writing a letter to the editor in which he called the event coordinator position “vital” and chastised the Herald for reporting the story. He stopped just short of calling it “fake news.”

He also didn’t help himself by name-dropping former President George H.W. Bush and relating the the story of how Bush slid behind the bar to sling drinks at a fundraiser Kennedy attended. Kennedy’s point was that it wasn’t beneath Bush to serve drinks. To which the obvious response was: Then why is it beneath you to serve drinks?

There have been a couple of wry letters to the editor regarding Kennedy’s high-brow ways, but that’s been about it. No anger. No nastiness. No calls for his firing or resignation. No name-calling.

This is sort of funny, especially when you compare it to Bismarck’s and the Internet world’s response every time North Dakota State president Dean Bresciani has done something in the last several years. Every time Bresciani opened his mouth or booked a business-class plane ticket to fly halfway around the world, legislators and commentators were calling for his head on a stick. Even Bresciani’s boss, North Dakota University System chancellor Mark Hagerott, took a couple of public shots at the NDSU president.

Ah, yes, the infamous plane ticket. Bresciani booked a business class seat from Fargo to Bangalore, India, for about $8,300 in January 2016. The smartest thing Bresciani ever did? Probably not. But the flight was about 16,000 miles round-trip and it was Bresciani’s first (and probably last) overseas trip as NDSU’s president. Its purpose was to recruit international graduate students for science, technology, engineering and math.

When longtime NDSU and Bresciani critic Bob Skarphol, then a state representative from Tioga, sent an e-mail to fellow legislators blasting the president, the story became a thing. For Skarphol, it was all about Bresciani trying to bring subsidized international students to North Dakota at taxpayer expense so the president could boost NDSU’s enrollment numbers. To the usual Bresciani critics in Bismarck and the media, it was again about his arrogance and disrespect.

Lawmakers and the media have been silent thus far on Kennedy’s situation.

Do we have a double-standard at work here in North Dakota? Does NDSU and its president get more scrutiny and criticism than his counterpart at UND? Gosh, that would be new …

Let’s clear up something: Kennedy wanting an event planner is not uncalled for, nor is calling the position “vital,” nor is Bresciani spending several thousand extra dollars on a business-class ticket.

Kennedy and Bresciani are big boys. They run institutions with huge budgets that are major employers and major economic engines for the Grand Forks and Fargo regions. They are comparable to CEOs of large corporations. Events planners, as Kennedy pointed out in his letter to the Herald, are key because one of the president’s jobs is to wine and dine muckety-mucks to try to get into their checkbooks for donations. There is nothing untoward about a university president wanting to travel 16,000 miles in relative comfort on an important business trip.

But if Bresciani is going to be disemboweled for buying a plane ticket, should not Kennedy be slashed for insisting that a $60,000-a-year party planner/wife assistant is a “vital” position in these times of deep budget cuts.

The problem with Bresciani, like it or not, was optics — he did something that looked bad to a majority of North Dakotans because they don’t 1) fly to the other side of the world and 2) don’t buy business-class airline tickets.

Kennedy’s faux pas is more optical than anything else, too. It’s not unreasonable for a CEO to have somebody coordinating his events, but it’s not something average North Dakotans do. They mix their own drinks, crack their own beers. Their wives don’t have assistants. Many work full-time, raise the kids, manage the house and do a hundred other things all by their lonesome.

Odd how differently those awkward optics are received and interpreted by state politicians, higher education officials and the media.