Mark Kennedy is a mediocre ideologue

On April 10, the University of Colorado Board of Regents unanimously named Mark Kennedy as the sole finalist to replace Bruce Benson as the president of the four-campus University of Colorado system. Kennedy has been the president of the University of North Dakota since July 2016. Before that he was:

Mr. Kennedy received a B.S. from St. John’s University in 1978 and an M.B.A. from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in 1983.

The decision of the Board of Regents to put forward Mr. Kennedy to lead the University of Colorado system is deeply disappointing. Mr. Kennedy’s disqualifications extend far beyond attempting to enshrine discrimination into the U.S. Constitution, although he now claims he would vote differently. Mr. Kennedy’s 17-year career as a financial director at major retail firms lacked any discernable success, his three terms as a Republican representative saw him enthusiastically embrace now-discredited right-wing policies, and his academic career as a program director and university president is marred by controversy. His record in public service showed a commitment to regressive policies that did not reflect the values of Minnesota voters in 2006 and—in the absence of any public statements of repentance—certainly does not reflect the interests of Colorado’s residents or the values of the University of Colorado’s students, faculty, and staff. Our university system deserves a better leader than this mediocre ideologue.

President of the University of Colorado system

Bruce Benson announced in 2018 that he would be stepping down as president of the University of Colorado system after 10 years in office. Mr. Benson earned a B.A. in Geology from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1964 and founded the Benson Mineral Group, an oil and gas exploration production company, in 1965.

Throughout his professional career, Mr. Benson was actively involved in national conservative politics: two-time chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, chairman of the Colorado Campaign for Bush-Quayle in 1992, Republican nominee for Governor of Colorado in 1994, and member of the campaign and transition committees for Bush-Cheney in 2000, 2004, and Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2008.

Despite the existential threats that climate change poses to American economic prosperity, social stability, and national security and CU Boulder’s scientific leadership researching the causes and effects of climate change, Mr. Benson has embarrassingly questioned the scientific consensus around anthropogenic climate change. However, Mr. Benson put his partisan political activities aside upon becoming the President and has guided the CU system through a major international financial crisis, rapid growth and changing demographics within Colorado, and investing in critical new areas of research and innovation.

The political values espoused by Mr. Kennedy are not shared by the majority of Coloradans who have elected Democrats as governor since 2006, only one Republican senator since 2004, and Democratic presidents since 2008. Although Republicans hold a narrow 5–4 majority among the elected Regents, there is no justifiable rationale for installing a partisan Republican like Mr. Kennedy to lead a non-partisan organization like the University of Colorado system. Mr. Kennedy’s voting record in Congress is a clear and present danger to the CU system’s ability to fundraise from donors across the political spectrum and to work with diverse constituencies across the state of Colorado.

Academic career (2010–)

I will not spend much time discussing his academic career following Mr. Kennedy’s departure from Congress because others are already shaking down his record of over-compensating staff and disbanding UND’s celebrated women’s hockey team. Alex Wolf-Root at the CU Independent reports on incidents at George Washington University where Mr. Kennedy allegedly discriminated against gay staffers repeatedly and without consequence. Mr. Kennedy already was searching for new employment within his first two years at the University of North Dakota: the University of Central Florida passed on him in 2018. It is unclear why Mr. Kennedy is in such a rush to leave his role at UND presidency after a little more than a year.

Mr. Kennedy authored a 2017 book, Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism (Columbia Business School Publishing). The central thesis of the book is that business executives wrongly ignore “shapeholders” like regulators, the media, and activists who have no stake in a company and should seek out “collaborations to diffuse political tensions.” The book is blurbed by a variety of Washington insiders and Fortune-listed CEOs like Robert Zoellick, Glenn Hubbard, Major Garrett, Greg Page, and Steve Sanger.

Publisher’s Weekly’s review summarizes the contribution,

“This is an easy, well-organized read, if a bit padded; it’s a thought-provoking, if not groundbreaking, way to frame the new responsibilities of the business world.”

A review in the Journal of Public Affairs offers,

“The anecdotes might be new, but the main message to companies is perhaps not, the need to engage with one’s critics… ‘Businesses have the right to responsibly engage with government’ is the premise, and the book contains many useful insights from the land of the lobbyist.”

Mr. Kennedy’s academic output since starting at George Washington University in 2012 totals 1 book, 3 book chapters, 2 journal articles, and 13 case studies. I will leave it to experts in corporate social responsibility to evaluate Mr. Kennedy’s research contributions.

House of Representatives (2001–2007)

The Regents’ announcement framed Mr. Kennedy as a pragmatic, bipartisan, consensus-driven politician:

“In Congress, he had a reputation for working across the aisle, leading bills with 20 members of the opposing party and authoring bills that more than half of the other party co-sponsored.”

This is a deeply misleading distortion of Mr. Kennedy’s actual legislative record. Mr. Kennedy repeatedly campaigned on a platform of very conservative issues. Archived snapshots of his campaign websites in 2002, 2004, and 2006 included issue statements like:

  • “Defended the sanctity of marriage against rogue un-elected judges hoping to redefine it.”
  • “Supported President Bush’s faith-based initiative to allow religious organizations to compete for government program contracts.”
  • “Supported the Human Cloning Prohibition Act, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and the Born Alive Infants Protection Act.”
  • “Sponsored legislation to protect firearms manufacturers and dealers from frivolous lawsuits.”
  • “Supported a two-thirds vote requirement for any future increases in taxes.”
  • “Voted for a bill protecting decency on television by increasing penalties on broadcasters who violate decency standards.”
  • “Supported protecting the flag against desecration for which so many valiant soldiers have died.”
  • “Supported strengthening aviation security through creation of the Transportation Security Agency… [and] legislation that will replace the INS with an Agency for Immigration Affairs and a Bureau of Immigration Enforcement.”
  • “Supported protecting teachers from frivolous lawsuits for taking reasonable actions to maintain order and discipline in the classroom.”
  • “Sponsored the Project Exile Safe Streets and Neighborhoods Act of 2001, which promotes tougher and longer sentences for violent criminals.”

The voters of Minnesota rejected these values and policies when 1,278,849 voters elected Amy Klochubar over Mr. Kennedy’s 835,653 supporters in Minnesota’s 2006 Senate campaign (58.1%–39.7%). Mr. Kennedy did not seek re-election for his House seat but the voters of his former district would go on to elect Michelle Bachmann four times before she retired in 2014 under a cloud of ethics investigations.

In his three terms as a Representative, Mr. Kennedy introduced a total of 41 bills, or 13.7 bills per term, an average level of productivity for members of the 107th through 109th Congresses. 3 of these bills were passed by the House, making his 7% passage rate below average compared to his peers’ 11–14% rate. The only legislation sponsored by Mr. Kennedy that passed out of both the House and Senate was a concurrent resolution congratulating the Minnesota National Guard on its 150th anniversary. Mr. Kennedy co-sponsored 678 pieces of legislation, 41 of which (6%) ever became law. Only 2 of the 41 successfully co-sponsored bills were related to education (H.R.1412 “Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act of 2003” and H.R.1350 “Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004”) while 9 of Mr. Kennedy’s successfully co-sponsored bills were related to commemorative coins. Despite being in the majority party at the time and a member of the Agriculture, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Financial Services committees, Mr. Kennedy has—at best—a mediocre record of substantive legislative productivity.

Another way we can explore Mr. Kennedy’s political ideology while in office is through the use of NOMINATE scores (data from VoteView). A legislator’s history of roll call votes can be decomposed into two primary dimensions: economic partisanship and cultural partisanship. Far from being a model of pragmatic centrism or bipartisan comity, Mr. Kennedy’s NOMINATE-1 score (left image below) shows he was a reliable supporter of conservative economic policies. This NOMINATE-1 score was more extreme than 75% of other members of the House at the time. Mr. Kennedy’s NOMINATE-2 score (right image below) shows his voting patterns along social and cultural dimensions was more extreme than 84% of other members of these Congresses.

Because Mr. Kennedy is seeking a senior public office in Colorado, it is also worth comparing his partisanship to the distribution of NOMINATE scores of Colorado representatives since the end of World War II. His voting record is more extreme than 66% of post-war Colorado representatives along the first NOMINATE dimension and more extremely than 90% along the second NOMINATE dimension. His time in Congress was spent supporting partisan legislation that is an outlier compared to 75 years of Coloradans’ preferences.

Mr. Kennedy was a representative during major events like the 9/11 attacks and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Mr. Kennedy had the opportunity to vote on controversial legislation like the PATRIOT Act, Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. Mr. Kennedy supported all of these policies. In fact, Mr. Kennedy’s was an extremely reliable supporter of President Bush’s policies, voting to support the President more than 90% of the time. This is not the mark of a bipartisan maverick or consensus-building compromiser, but of a partisan lackey.

To provide some context for these scores, let’s find the “mirror image Democrat” whose scores are similarly polarized in the opposite direction. (Note that this analysis does not account for the asymmetric polarization in which Republicans have grown more ideologically extreme in recent decades than Democrats: the mirror of a median Republican is now an extremely liberal Democrat). Lloyd Doggett, who represents Austin, Texas, has a NOMINATE-1 score of -0.402 and a NOMINATE-2 score of -0.311. As the scores would suggest, Mr. Doggett opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, opposed the AUMF in Iraq War, and opposed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban. Mr. Doggett is one of the most liberal members to ever represent Texas. For the same 107th through 109th Congresses, Mr. Doggett has sponsored 42 bills and co-sponsored 774 bills, of which 42 become law despite being in the minority party. Anyone bemoaning a lack of tolerance for Mr. Kennedy’s partisan record should muster the same defense for tolerating Mr. Doggett’s similarly partisan record.

This extremely conservative voting record is also reflected in Mr. Kennedy’s most recent legislative ratings by activist organizations:

While his position on marriage equality has apparently evolved, Mr. Kennedy still shows an alarming lack of compunction for supporting other ghoulish policies as a member of Congress. Inaugurating the humbly-named “Mark Kennedy Frontiers of Freedom Lecture Series”, Mr. Kennedy expressed no regrets about his support for the war in Iraq (which he euphemistically called “advancing Freedom’s Frontier”), saying:

“For my strong advocacy of advancing Freedom’s Frontier, Britt Hume from Fox News called me the most honest Republican in the 2006 election because I stood up for what I believed in even though it was politically unpopular and damaging electorally.”

Current estimates put the number of casualties following the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq between 151,000 and 655,000 deaths. Mr. Kennedy seems more concerned with defending his popularity and electability than squaring his “pro-life” values with his support for this staggering loss of life as a consequence of his votes.

In the day following Mr. Kennedy’s announcement, much of the criticism has focused on his support for the Defense of Marriage Act while in Congress. He has come out and stated that his thinking on this issue has “evolved.” However, according to my analysis of FEC filings for his Congressional and Senate campaigns between 2000 and 2006, his largest donors were other extreme right-wing groups. Mr. Kennedy top donors over this time included:

  • $291,971 from the NRA Political Victory Fund
  • $103,033 from the Freedom Club
  • $85,209 from the Minnesota Citizens Concerns for Life Committee
  • $41,104 from the Freedom Project
  • $35,000 Committee for the Preservation of Capitalism

I believe Mr. Kennedy should acknowledge and either defend or apologize for raising huge sums of campaign money from these right-wing groups.

Financial director in retail (1983–2000)

The Regents’ announcement also framed Mr. Kennedy as an accomplished businessman:

“…he had a distinguished business career that included leadership roles at some of America’s largest and most respected companies.”

Mr. Kennedy spent 17 years of his career before Congress as a financial director at four firms: the Pillsbury Company (1983–1987), Federated Stores a.k.a. Macy’s (1987–1992), ShopKo (1992–1995), and Department 56 (1995–2000).

Let’s begin with the Pillsbury Company. In 1988, the conglomerate that is now known as Diageo initiated a hostile takeover bid for Pillsbury for $5.7 billion to acquire high-profile brands like Pillsbury as well as retail chains like Burger King. The New York Times summarized what led to the hostile takeover (emphasis added):

“Pillsbury, the analysts said, has been equally conservative, not marketing its brands as aggressively as it might and, in general, turning in a weak financial performance.”

By 1991, the new owners of Pillsbury had laid off 550 people at its Minneapolis headquarters and hundreds more at factories and offices of its subsidiaries around the country. The evidence we have of Mr. Kennedy’s “leadership role” as a director of finance at Pillsbury was weak financial performance that led to a hostile foreign take-over and hundreds of lay-offs of Minnesotan employees. Not a success in my estimation.

Mr. Kennedy then moved on to Federated Stores for five years between 1987 and 1992 as the Senior Vice President and Treasurer. This was a tremendously tumultuous period for the chain, with many controversies that Mr. Kennedy would have been deeply involved in. In April 1988, Federated accepted a $6.6 billion takeover bid (then the fifth-largest acquisition in U.S. history) from Candian real estate developer Campeau Corporation after a prolonged battle with R.H. Macy & Company, which made it the fourth-largest retailer in the U.S. after Sears, K-Mart, and WalMart. A familiar pattern of layoffs for employees and golden parachutes for executives was repeated. Seventeen months later in September 1989 in the midst of a financial crisis that jeopardized the “junk bonk” leveraged buy-out model, the new owner lost control of their own company to debt-holders and stores were facing fundamental cash-flow problems and a “run on the bank” as suppliers rushed to cash checks before a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 1990 that was so large it hurt suppliers’ earnings. More than 50,000 companies ended up having claims as unsecured creditors against Federated’s $7.5 billion bankruptcy which only paid out $2.8 billion in claims when it emerged from bankruptcy in 1992. In June 1990, the IRS filed a $1 billion tax claim against Federated. Being the treasurer to a company that went into collections and then multi-billion dollar bankruptcy is not a mark of a distinguished business leader.

Following Federated’s massive bankruptcy, Mr. Kennedy started at retail grocery spinoff ShopKo as the senior vice president and chief financial officer from 1992 to 1995. Mr. Kennedy again showed a remarkable ability to pick losers as ShopKo was spun out of parent company SuperValu in order to generate cash for another acquisition. Mr. Kennedy managed the aftermath of its 1991 IPO where investors took up strong short positions and oversaw a $100 million Baa2 debt issuance. Shopko’s financial performance was unremarkable: income, revenue, and earnings saw major fluctuations over 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1995. ShopKo was taken private in 2005 by an infamous private equity investor and declared bankruptcy in January 2019. Mr. Kennedy is not responsible for what transpired in the years after his tenure at ShopKo, but his performance while there was unremarkable—at best—and did not position the organization for continued success.

In Mr. Kennedy’s next stint, he joined the holiday-themed retailer Department 56 as SVP and CFO. The company distinguished itself with collectible porcelain and ceramic gifts, but the company was an enthusiastic participant in the “irrational exuberance” of the financial market in the late 1990s, which saw its stock price swing wildly as investment groups poured in and then out. Financial performance missed investor expectations on several occasions resulting in 20% swings in stock prices for investors. Some of this can be attributed to Beanie Baby-inspired mania for its collectibles for the Baby Boomer set because the company retires different products, making them more valuable to collectors who seek out complete sets. The company spent the late 1990s trying to license its brand, launching national ad campaigns, opening flagship retail stores, and an ill-advised 2005 acquisition of the Lenox china brand. How much of this vision came to pass? Not much, with talk in 2015 about a “second act” for the company after the excesses of the 1990s during Mr. Kennedy’s tenure. Once again, Mr. Kennedy’s “leadership” left behind businesses that were neither successful nor sustainable.


Mr. Kennedy’s background shows little in the way of sustained success, leadership, or vision to lead the University of Colorado system. Mr. Kennedy created a hostile work environment at George Washington University and soured donor relations at the University of North Dakota. Mr. Kennedy is an unapologetic foot-soldier for discredited right-wing causes like the “Defense of Marriage” and the War in Iraq. He has no notable legislative accomplishments for his three terms in Congress as a member of the majority party but happily cashed donor checks from extreme right-wing donors. Mr. Kennedy left his first job at Pillsbury with the company in dire financial straits that led to a hostile takeover, his second job as treasurer of Federated Stores ended with a massive bankruptcy that cost creditors billions, his third job at CFO at a newly IPO-ed ShopKo had undistinguished financial performance in the rapidly-growing discount retail sector, and his fourth job as CFO at Department 56 chain saw uneven growth and performance. He was a mediocre businessman, a below-average member of Congress, and undistinguished academic leader.

I do not want the University of Colorado to settle for a mediocre ideologue because of the Board of Regents’ partisanship or gross negligence by executive search firm they retained. I want a leader whose values are guided by inclusion and empathy, not cynically weaponizing resentment; I want a leader with a record of sustainable success and innovation, not hostile takeovers, bankruptcy, and casino capitalism; I want a leader committed to building the University of Colorado system into a national and world leader of public education and scholarship, not a temporary layover for his other professional ambitions. Far from having a bipartisan political record or distinguished business career, Mr. Kennedy’s checkered track record in business demands a fuller accounting of his role, accountability, and lessons learned—if any. He certainly should not be allowed to lead a critical social institution and a vital economic driver like the University of Colorado system. Our $4.5 billion annual budget, 67,000 students, and 35,000 employees cannot survive his history of bungled business dealings, unapologetic partisanship, and adversarial leadership.



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