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Kennedy should learn from reaction to proposed hire

 

It isn’t the position. It’s the timing — and the president’s response.

That’s our takeaway from the fracas over the replacement of a retiring event coordinator in University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy’s office.

A key bottom line: The position is important, even vital. Why is Kennedy himself among North Dakota’s highest-paid public servants? Simple: Because Kennedy’s salary is leverage. It’s an investment by North Dakota in Kennedy’s talent and connections, traits that Kennedy is expected to use to raise tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars for the university.

Fundraising is a huge part of a modern university president’s job. So is running the complicated institution in a way that grows its reputation and strength.

If Kennedy succeeds at those goals, then North Dakota’s investment will have more than paid off. And if the event coordinator helps Kennedy succeed, then the state will have spent its money wisely there, too.

Furthermore, critics hurt their case when they dismiss the coordinator as a “bartender.” A glance at the job description sets the record straight. The description lists more than 50 duties, of which “serve as bartender during events” is only one.

Other duties include “initiate, plan and coordinate all official entertaining events hosted by the president and first lady,” “coordinate all catering arrangements,” “extend invitations and coordinate RSVP follow-up,” “on-site management of the event,” “track expenses,” “oversee payment” and dozens of others.

As a thoughtful letter in Monday’s Herald concluded, “to reduce the impressive multitasking that the event coordinator must do to just one of the more trivial duties in the job description is a disservice to her (the retiring incumbent’s) valuable work and presence at UND.”

That said, Kennedy must realize that with every UND staffer and student anxious about where the ax will fall, his own hiring decisions will be second guessed. People are watching, and a key to getting “buy in” from them will be showing that the administration is sharing — not just feeling — their pain.

That’s where Kennedy should direct his attention, because that’s why this hire touched a nerve.

It’s the timing — meaning the timing of this particular hire, and what it seems to be saying about Kennedy’s approach to UND’s fiscal squeeze.

UND philosophy professor Jack Russell Weinstein was blunt about that perception. “They’re cutting the law school, they’re cutting the radio station and they’re cutting courses, and the president is hiring a party planner,” Weinstein told Herald Staff Writer Andrew Hazzard.

A few years ago, Altru Health System faced its own cutbacks. Here’s how the headline in the next day’s Herald read: “Altru tightens its belt; senior leadership taking pay cut until end of 2013.”

Altru’s approach generated comments, too; but those comments were a lot more forgiving of Altru’s leaders. That’s because the stakeholders knew the leaders were sharing in the sacrifice, not just doing it out. There’s a lesson in that perception for Kennedy at UND.

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