BOULDER, COLORADO — Students at the University of Colorado Boulder held a protest Monday in opposition to the impending confirmation of former Republican congressman Mark Kennedy as president of the university system, citing his record of conservative and anti-LGBTQ votes.
Kennedy, the former president of the University of North Dakota, was named as the sole candidate to be the next University of Colorado president by the University’s Board of Regents in an announcement last week. In the announcement, the Board of Regents cited Kennedy’s “commitment to diversity.”
Kennedy served as a congressman representing Minnesota in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2006. While in office, he voted in favor of and co-sponsored bills that aimed to create a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. He also voted in favor of funding health care providers that do not provide information about abortions and against providing grants to black and Hispanic colleges.
Protesters at the University of Colorado Boulder gathered in front of the university library to rally against Kennedy, holding signs bearing the phone numbers for the president and vice president of the Board of Regents, the body which selected Kennedy as the finalist for president and which is expected to confirm him later this month. Other posters had phrases such as “Kennedy skis in jeans” and “CU plus Mark Kennedy does not equal diversity.”
“His voting record on pretty much everything I represent is abysmal,” said student Natalie Sharp, who identified herself as a queer woman of color. Sharp is a graduate student in creative writing, and was at the protest holding a sign saying “at least CU students know how to Google,” a reference to the board’s apparent failure to vet Kennedy.
The Board of Regents was heavily criticized for statements that came out after Kennedy was announced as the finalist revealed he was not fully vetted. One of the regents said the board did not ask Kennedy about his political history during his interview.
“The University of Colorado system could do better than someone with this history,” said graduate student Andrew Guttman. “We think we deserve a leader who has a past to be proud of, a career to be touted, not hid from and apologized for.”
Kennedy wrote an open letter to the university on Friday in which he said that his views on same-sex marriage had “evolved” since his time in Congress, and that he would vote differently today. However, some students are skeptical of the claim.
“As a member of the LGBT community, I am tired of people who have contributed to rampant homophobia in politics simply saying they have evolved,” said CU student Victoria Acuña, addressing the crowd.
One former regent, Bob Sievers, also attended in support of the protest. Sievers, 84, represented Boulder’s congressional district on the Board of Regents from 1990 to 2002.
“There’s a pretty strong desire [among the students] to see more than one candidate,” Sievers said. “So I’m adding my small voice to those who worry about how the vetting is going.”
“We need to make sure that Mark Kennedy is thoroughly vetted if he becomes president,” said CU law student Pardeep Singh Badhesha.
Students and faculty were frustrated with the fact that only one finalist was named, and that the other candidates were kept secret from the public. The board is expected to hold a confirmation vote on Kennedy in two weeks, but Kennedy appears to have resigned from UND, leading many in the community to feel that the decision period is just a formality.
“I’ve been on many search committees and I know that when there’s only one candidate it’s pretty much a done deal,” said CU English professor Julie Carr. Carr helped draft an open letter sent to the regents Saturday, which voiced concerns about Kennedy’s record. The letter garnered almost 5,000 signatures.
Not all students are against Kennedy’s nomination. Konrad Schreier, the law school representative on CU’s student government, said it concerned him that students were criticizing Kennedy based mainly on his time in Congress.
“If you’re just using his congressional record to criticize him, it sounds like too much of a political litmus test, and since this is a public university I don’t think that’s appropriate at all,” Schreier said.
In response to the protest, University of Colorado spokesperson Ken McConnellogue told ThinkProgress in a statement that “the University of Colorado is a community with people passionate about issues that affect CU and society, and we appreciate students voicing their views in a productive and thoughtful way.”
Students plan to hold a second protest on April 26 when Kennedy visits the Boulder campus for an open forum.