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Littwin: The problem with CU President Mark Kennedy is not just that he was hired, but how he was hired

And in case you think that the legislature will ensure transparency in such a hire next time, you may want to think again.

It’s a good thing that Mark Kennedy is stepping down as president of the University of Colorado. He was the wrong president at the wrong time, a former right-wing politician with a shaky resumé who never gained the trust of students, faculty and, for all I know, school mascots. 

And now that Democrats have gained a majority of the Board of Regents for the first time in 40 years, it was clear that Kennedy, who was very much a partisan hire, was on his way out after just two years on the job.

Kennedy’s problems were no secret. There was a huge outcry when he was hired, and the outcry wouldn’t end until he announced his coming departure. Jim Martin, a former CU regent, gave a fair look at Kennedy’s many shortcomings in an op-ed for the Denver Post. Or you could just rely on the CU-Boulder faculty group’s censure or the student-government censure. The faculty assembly censure was the first in school history.

Mike Littwin

But Kennedy’s hiring, however misguided, is not the real issue. It’s how he was hired that matters, which was with a complete lack of transparency. Kennedy was the lone finalist announced for the job, which seemed to violate a state law that requires public entities to announce serious finalists for top jobs, like, say, a school superintendent or a fire chief or city manager. Or, yes, a university system president.

The law is fuzzy, though, on the question of who exactly qualifies as a finalist, which is how CU got around it. The Boulder Daily Camera sought the names of the other finalists through public records laws but eventually lost its bid at the state Supreme Court level. 

And so what happened next? If you think the response was for the legislature to make the law clearer in the name of transparency, then please head to the back of the line and try again.

Instead, the state legislature, in a bipartisan show of wrongheadedness, will apparently send a bill to the governor that changes to law to allow these same public entities — including public universities and colleges — to reveal only a single finalist for their top position.

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In other words, the law would address the problem of transparency, say at CU, by concluding not that the real problem is that the public will know too little, but know too much. Let’s hope Jared Polis vetoes the bill.

The rationale for the bill, like the rationale CU used in naming a single finalist, is that candidates would be reluctant to come forward if their names were to become public, meaning that their current employer would learn of their desire to leave for a better job. The bill’s backers say it would help with diversity hires. I guess that could be an issue, although, as a Chalkbeat article on the subject points out, some school districts in the state name their finalists and some don’t. In both cases, they have found suitable people to hire.

And in the case of CU, they are promising transparency this time around. The truth is that in the small university world, if you do an interview with another college, the news will almost certainly get back to your employer. I can recommend a dozen novels, most written by faculty, on faculty gossip. 

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But even if that weren’t the case, the public’s right to know how such an important position is being filled far outweighs the concern for a candidate’s feelings. This is basic stuff, whether it’s a police chief or school superintendent. We want to know how the decision was made, what factors were considered, why certain candidates were moved forward. Knowledge, as we were famously told at Faber College, is good.

Transparency is an easy concept. Just think how much worse things would be in the matter of racial justice without police body cams, although getting the videos released is still a major issue. It’s only thanks to citizens using their own cell phone cameras to film police that many of those videos have become public.

As a journalist, I have an admitted bias toward transparency and openness. Finding out what politicians and others in power might be hiding from the public is part of the job. And the thing is, as a citizen, I’ve got the same bias. We know that local journalism is in crisis. According to the Pew Research Center, newspapers have shed half their employees since 2008. The Denver Post, for one, could only wish its newsroom had been cut only by half. Hundreds of papers have disappeared. 

In Colorado, the Colorado News Collaborative (COLAB) was formed to help uncover stories in the state’s news deserts and to mentor young reporters on small news staffs statewide. The Colorado Sun, in association with the National Trust for Local News, has purchased 24 suburban newspapers in the Denver metro area to help those papers thrive and keep them out of the hands of rapacious hedge funds.

And don’t get me started on the problem of misinformation. One of the strangest news stories of late is the defense prompted by one of those who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. He blamed it on something called “Foxitis,” which amounts to being fed propaganda by Fox and other outlets. I doubt it’s a winning strategy, but it is a winning branding.

It’s no secret that among the many crises facing our country is a lack of faith in institutions. It’s this lack of faith, just as one example, that has allowed the Trumpian Big Lie of 2020 elections to take hold. In Colorado, where it is said repeatedly that we have the gold standard for conducting fair elections, a recent poll showed that 67% of Republicans believe the election was rigged. Those people don’t believe the election officials, including many Republican officials. They don’t believe the judges, including those appointed by Donald Trump. They certainly don’t seem to believe Liz Cheney. Instead, if you can imagine, two of three Republicans are lining up instead with Lauren Boebert.

There’s a long list of reasons for this lack of faith that you can trace at least as far back as the Vietnam War and Watergate. And while transparency in hiring a CU president is not a cure for an issue this complex, it is a corrective. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

As I’m writing this on Tuesday morning, I’m waiting for Colorado Springs police to finally hold a news conference on the mass shooting that left seven dead over the weekend. There was no excuse for not holding briefings to inform the public on the second mass killing in Colorado this year. 

That is how conspiracy theories begin. Even with transparency, we still get those sickening false flag theories about mass shootings of 6-year-olds. Without transparency, you’re simply feeding the beast. 

It’s a lesson you’d think we would have learned by now.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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