UND president sets retirement date

GRAND FORKS--After nearly seven years of leading the University of North Dakota through growth and change, and facing backlash aimed at his administration, President Robert Kelley said he plans to retire.

GRAND FORKS-After nearly seven years of leading the University of North Dakota through growth and change, and facing backlash aimed at his administration, President Robert Kelley said he plans to retire.

Kelley, 71, announced Tuesday that he'll leave office Jan. 14.

During an interview in his office in Twamley Hall, Kelley appeared jovial, saying he and his wife Marcia, an avid volunteer at the school, have considered retirement for the past year. The couple will move to Colorado, where they can be closer to family.

"I'd like to leave the university in a very solid position for the next president," said Kelley, who took office July 1, 2008. "You can kind of fill in the blanks: there are personnel issues, there are academic issues. I'd like to be as strong a university as possible."

State Board of Higher Education Interim Chancellor Larry Skogen knew Kelley had been considering retirement for the last year, and the UND president made the official request during a performance evaluation on Monday.


Kelley's evaluation was a good one, said Skogen, who lauded UND's program and building expansions during Kelley's tenure.

"He's seen some turmoil, but look at the remarkable things that have occurred up at UND," Skogen said. "Look at the med school, a completely new medical school. Hats off to anyone who can pull that off."

While UND reached record enrollment in 2012, advanced new programs of study and began hundreds of millions of dollars in construction projects, Kelley also has been the target of public criticism on campus and in social media circles.

This spring, the UND Student Senate pushed a no-confidence vote for Kelley and three of his administrators, and a group of faculty distributed a survey to peers to gauge morale. The survey, published Tuesday, revealed widespread dissatisfaction with Kelley, with results pointing to beliefs Kelley is neither open nor transparent.

However, Kelley said his retirement announcement had not been prompted by the recent turmoil on campus. His contract is set to expire June 30, 2016.

"I'm 71 years old and it's time to pass the baton," Kelley said. "I've run my leg of the race and it's time to pass it on."

Facing adversity

UND faced controversy in the mid 2000s when the NCAA passed rules barring the use of Native American imagery, and UND was made to examine its Fighting Sioux nickname and ultimately retire it in late 2012 after a lengthy legal battle. SBHE instructed Kelley to lead efforts to move UND from the nickname's use.


After appointing two committees of stakeholders to develop the process of picking a new nickname and implement it, Kelley said he hopes the group puts a narrowed down list of names to a public vote before he leaves UND.

The original plan to hold a public vote in early May has passed, and the nickname committee members have said they will take as long as they need, though committee Chairman Karl Goerhing said he thinks a vote before Kelley's last day Jan. 14 is a possibility.

"It's been very nice getting to know (Kelley) and the first lady, and I think they've handled what's been a real tough situation here with a lot of grace and certainly it's not an easy issue for anybody," Goehring said.

More recently in April, then UND Student Body President Tanner Franklin spearheaded a vote of "no-confidence," citing transparency issues regarding the development of tuition models. An online petition for the no-condifence vote gained at least a thousand signatures in a matter of hours, but the issue was ultaimtely resolved and the resolution was tabled indefinitely.

Kelley acknowledged the need to communicate more openly during a University Council Meeting in May.

He will serve one more full semester and said he plans to use the time to keep his promise to improve communication with his employees across campus, possibly with townhall meetings.

"I think I just need to walk the campus, walk the halls more than I have been," he said. "I have to do more."

The faculty satisfaction survey published results on Tuesday that show many don't see Kelley as open and transparent. Kelley rated the climate at a "B," saying he wished to get it to an "A" before he leaves.


"I think we have some challenges in other areas, and some folks in those areas have been somewhat vocal in their concerns and I understand that," he said. "That's normal in the life of a university."

Journey to UND

Kelley attended high school in Albuquerque, N.M., and went on to earn master's and doctorate degrees from the University of California Berkeley in 1969. He served in a variety of administrative, faculty and staff positions at the University of New Mexico, University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Wyoming before ultimately coming to UND at age 63.

In his late 2007 and early 2008 interviews for the position of president at UND, Kelley said he wanted to increase external research funding, develop niche programs, help transition into NCAA Division I athletics and stressed the importance of building a strong internal team.

Kelley said when he came to UND, he planned to stay for about five years because it was the average time a president would stay in the position.
"Once we got here and realized what could be accomplished and how much we enjoyed being here ... we just really enjoyed it, so seven years have gone by and we finally have to come to grips with the fact that it's time," Kelley said.

Bruce Smith, the outgoing dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, was one of the candidates for the president position back in 2007 along with Kelley. He said Kelley always looked after the aerospace school.

"It hasn't necessarily been a smooth road over all those years, but invariably he has supported us," Smith said.

Kelley replaced former UND President Charles Kupchella, who served as president for nine years. Kelley made $350,265 annually, not including benefits.


What's next

Kelley said his biggest accomplishment is the development of his support team of five vice presidents he hired in his time at UND.

"I have just thoroughly enjoyed and benefited from working with them," he said.

Kelley also said he is pleased with the many building projects happening on campus and is excited to see the Law School renovation and addition wrap up, along with the renovation of Wilkerson Commons dining area.

When asked if he would do anything differently during his tenure, Kelley laughed as he said he wished he had more time to play his trombone and would be open to finding a group to play with in Colorado.

Kelley also said he's open to the idea of being a consultant or continuing to work with higher education, though he hasn't made any concrete decisions.

SBHE will begin the search for Kelley's replacement after incoming Chancellor Mark Hagerott begins his tenure July 1, Skogen said. As with other presidential searches, a search committee and consulting firm will be involved.

"We've got a new chancellor coming in in three weeks," Skogen said. "There's no reason for me to run around and start a search."


Kelley said he would tell his successor to make careful decisions and think things through, utilizing as much information from stakeholders as possible.

"Its all about the university," he said. "It's all about UND. It's not about the president."

What To Read Next
Get Local