Five questions for President Mark Kennedy

‘The more I learn about CU, the more impressed I am’
By Staff

CU President Mark Kennedy
CU President Mark Kennedy

Mark Kennedy became the 23rd president of the University of Colorado in July 2019. He came to CU after successful careers in business, government and higher education.

Since taking the helm at Colorado’s flagship university system, he initiated a strategic planning process, Leaning Into the Future, which is just over half complete. He has met with shared governance groups across the system, hundreds of donors and dozens of state and federal elected officials. Kennedy initiated two significant assessments of major CU activities, online education and technology enablement. He has visited communities across Colorado, from the Western Slope to the Eastern Plains.

Kennedy and his wife, Debbie, are first-generation college graduates.

1. Now that you’re eight months into your presidency, what are your impressions of the University of Colorado and the job?

The more I learn about CU, the more impressed I am. How many other universities offer top-notch liberal arts programs on three academic campuses? How many have a world-class academic medical center where first-rate education, research, clinical care, and medical discovery are the rule, not the exception? How many could build a satellite for the United Arab Emirates that will be launched in Japan? How many have an urban research university that not only provides a highly diverse student body with a quality education, but also is a leader in urban dynamism? How many are helping lead the charge for Colorado to become the nation’s space capital while also breaking new ground in cybersecurity and serving the entire southern part of the state?

Bottom line, CU is a great university.

It offers something for virtually every learner across four campuses, and we also play a critical role in Colorado’s quality of life and economic vibrancy. We’re also addressing issues critical to society, including health care, diversity, space, cybersecurity, sustainability and the future of cities. Perhaps most important, we provide a high-quality education and graduate more than 15,000 students each year. They are the highly skilled workforce Colorado needs.

As for the job, I’ve had the chance to meet many people inside and outside CU and what they have in common is a deep well of good feeling about the university. I haven’t met every major donor or every legislator or every accomplished alumnus, but I’m working hard to connect with people.

Debbie and I are also enjoying getting to know this great state. We’ve been to the Eastern Plains and Western Slope and points in between. My only complaint thus far is the lack of guardrails on the harrowing parts of Red Mountain Pass.

We have a great team at CU in system administration and on the campuses and I have appreciated their collaborative and innovative spirit.

Underlying all of what we do at CU is an entrepreneurial nature and spirit. It’s really the spirit of the West. Our forebears discovered silver and gold, and we continue their legacy by mining rich veins of learning and discovery.

2. Are you pleased with the progress of the strategic planning process? What do you expect the result to be?

We’re a little more than halfway through the process, and I’m pleased with the progress and participation in strategic planning. It has been great to get input from shared governance, from faculty, staff, students and alumni on each campus, as well as members of the business and nonprofit communities. The hard work by the working groups that are diving deep into defining the details of the plan is bearing fruit. We have articulated and refined metrics we will strive to achieve, and they are developing action steps next.

We have the right areas of focus, which include things like graduation rates, diversity, mental health, research, among others. They are topics that you and I find important each and every day. I hope the shared vision for the future that will emerge from the plan will help us make accelerated progress in important areas. It will also help us focus our resources, which is important since we will likely face an economic slowdown at some point in our future.

I’m also thrilled with the leadership of CU Boulder Business School Dean Sharon Matusik and system CFO and Vice President for Finance Todd Saliman as co-chairs of our planning effort. They’ve been ably assisted by Associate Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Angelique Foster.

The way things are coming together, I’m confident we’ll meet our deadline for presenting a draft plan to the Board of Regents in July. Then we will continue widespread conversations around implementation.

3. CU is working with external partners on two significant assessments of key capabilities that are in process – online education and technology enablement. What progress is being made and what do you expect going forward?

Having interned at Eastman Kodak, which lost the battle for photography’s future after being flooded by the digital wave, and then my time in retail, where clicks replaced bricks and retailers struggle to survive, I have observed firsthand that it is only by leaning into a digital future that entities survive, much less prosper.

In online education, the top 15 online public universities grew by 10%; the next 50 grew by 2% and those below that are flat or shrinking. CU can be in the top group only by an aligned effort with a common focus. Otherwise, it’s not sustainable. We’re not focused on chasing the large national players, but we must have the capabilities to meet our mission and to compete. We must ensure we are at a sustainable scale. CU awards 40% of on-campus degrees in Colorado but only 10% of online. Consistent with our entrepreneurial spirit, our strategy must not only ensure competitive scale online, but also lay seeds for a future not predicated solely on degrees and credit hours.

Regarding technology enablement, we have to find a path to added functionality. Things like a constituent relationship management (CRM) platform, data analytics and artificial intelligence are critical to our future. We need to be at the forefront of embracing technological advances by finding efficiencies where differentiation by campus is not necessary so we can make investments in new capabilities that will empower faculty, staff and students. We have quality IT teams around the CU system with great staffs. Each campus needs to focus on its unique needs, but we also need to consider the common functions we can do once instead of four times.

I recognize that this will require cultural change and that such change is hard. We have to preserve the entrepreneurial culture vital to the university. It depends on always striving to sharpen the unique focus of each campus in delivering learning and discovery while encouraging collaboration when it benefits our combined impact.

More coordinated support functions will be essential to our vitality. You can only be entrepreneurial if you empower people on the front end of learning and discovery. But we can only give them the support they need by being coordinated on common functions. The project will help us determine how best to deploy and invest in our people.

4. Given the potential scope of change in those two areas, do you anticipate that change to be incremental or more fast-paced?

Any changes resulting from these two efforts will be phased and sequential. We’re paying attention to many of the lessons learned from the Elevate project to ensure we are successful. Those lessons tell us we need a systemwide steering committee and defined project leads. We need a robust risk assessment. We need a dedicated project manager. And we need to communicate and gain input. We’re still in the early stages for each of these two projects, so activities will pick up steam rapidly. 

5. You and your wife, Debbie, are relative newcomers to Colorado. What have you most enjoyed about your new home?

Like many transplants to Colorado, we have found this among the most welcoming places we have ever encountered. Although given our heritage in Minnesota, we’re still waiting for winter. Debbie describes Colorado winter to our friends in Minnesota as winter in the morning, spring in the afternoon.

We have delighted in discovering some of Colorado’s cultural attractions, including museums, plays on our campuses and in communities. We’ve also attended many sporting events. We’ve been fortunate to travel some of the most beautiful parts of the state and to meet many wonderful people. Coming from the land of 10,000 lakes to a state with majestic mountains and expansive plains, Debbie and I realize we have been fortunate to live in places that are geographically blessed.

We love the state, love the people, and we love CU.