The debate over Mark Kennedy, the sole finalist to be the University of Colorado’s next president, has been consumed by votes he took a decade and a half ago while serving as a member of Congress. Specifically, opponents have highlighted Kennedy’s 2004 and 2006 votes to ban same-sex marriage.
That singular focus is not only unfair to Kennedy, but it is bad for the university and bad for Colorado. It threatens to trade a marketplace of ideas, the pre-eminent pillar of an educational institution, for a marketplace of outrage.
To be clear, I could not support Kennedy if he held the same positions today. I am both a vested member of the CU family and a long-time equal rights advocate for the LGBTQ community.
Anyone who currently opposes marriage equality — or the equal and just treatment of the genderqueer community in any manner — would not be an acceptable leader for CU.
But Kennedy has been clear that his thoughts on the topic have evolved; he would not vote the same way today. In an open letter, Kennedy wrote “Students, faculty, staff and members of our community will have my full support and respect no matter who they love or how they identify.”
Without further context, that letter could be viewed as self-serving. However, during his tenure as president for the University of North Dakota, Kennedy issued a notice of nondiscrimination that covered “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”
Kennedy adopted this policy in ruby-red North Dakota, a state that has voted for every Republican presidential candidate since 1968 and delivered a 40-point win to Donald Trump in 2016. Kennedy clearly did not issue the notice to win political points.
Kennedy’s conversion is important to me for several reasons.
First, I bleed black and gold. As a Colorado native and Boettcher Scholar, I chose CU Boulder over Colorado College, the University of Denver, That-School-in-Fort-Collins and every other Colorado institution of higher education, because of the diverse academic courses and experiences it offered.
I took full advantage and crammed 176 credit hours into four years, graduating with two degrees and three majors.
Three years later I returned to Boulder for my law degree. More than a decade after finishing, I’m on my third trip through the system, a current student a few months shy of an MBA in Health Administration from UCD.
I have also spent countless hours on The Hill, played pickup games on Farrand Field, and celebrated spring holidays in Norlin Quad. Framed pictures of the Miracle in Michigan and Folsom Field hung in my basement as I’ve followed Buffaloes football through good seasons and bad.
I’ve done all this with friends I met at CU, friends of all colors, creeds, sexual orientations and gender identities. Maybe more important than all my degrees, CU taught me to be open and accepting of all people.
Second, I am an unequivocal advocate for the LGBTQ community. The lessons I learned at CU compelled me to champion the conservative case to pass civil unions and sign an amicus brief supporting marriage equality.
I have written columns that argued for strong enforcement of public accommodations laws and expressed my profound admiration for a 12-year-old girl who changed Colorado’s birth certificate policies. For years I’ve served on the PAC Board for One Colorado, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization.
Over the past decade, I’ve asked Republicans to reconsider their views on LGBTQ equality and discrimination, challenging conservative orthodoxy to adopt more compassionate, principled and accepting positions.
Effectively, I’ve asked Republicans to take the same journey Kennedy has already completed.
Universities must be bastions for personal growth, safe havens to reflect and learn, the fertile soil into which old beliefs may be tilled and new beliefs nurtured.
To hold Kennedy to a different standard, one that dismisses his own intellectual and ideological journey, would be antithetical to that mission and the lessons imparted upon me by my alma mater.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq