With a CU pin on his lapel and a gold tie around his neck, Mark Kennedy showed up for his first day as the University of Colorado system’s new president yesterday with a junket that reached all four campuses.

He finished his listening tour at the University of Colorado Denver with a presentation about its education initiatives in rural Colorado assembled by faculty from the School of Education and Human Development.

“I graduated in a class of 56 students – we were one of the big school districts in the area,” Kennedy said of his early school days in Pequot Lakes, Minnesota.

Before graduating from college, he said he had never lived in a town with a population of more than 500.

The Rural Teacher Shortage

The presentation focused on the CU Denver’s efforts to abate the teacher shortage plaguing districts in most rural parts of the state.

Due to low retention rates, two-thirds of Colorado’s rural districts started the 2017-2018 school year with staff shortages said Barbara Seidl, an associate dean in the School of Education and Human Development.

“We can woo people in, but we can’t keep them,” she said. “If you’re not committed to the rural area, you come and go.”

The high turnover can be devastating, she said, because the young, often transient new hires will often move on before they can become top-notch educators.

“We have some large-scale longitudinal studies,” Seidl said, which correlate experience “with significant increases in achievement and improved student behavior through the first 15 years of teaching.”

The Solution

CU Denver has partnered with Otero Junior College in La Junta and Trinidad State Junior College to offer a bachelor’s program to prospective educators with roots in the underserved communities.

Neither program requires students to attend the Downtown Denver campus.

“We really need to make sure we’re doing this state-wide,” Kennedy said, “because the partnerships we can provide with community colleges and online [options]… can more fully meet that need.

“This is not a challenge unique to Colorado. Everybody worries that if you leave and see the big city lights you don’t come back, but there’s a lot of joy in living in rural communities,” he said. “If we can make that more accessible, we’re happy to do so.”

In particular, Kennedy seemed intrigued by technology as a way to break down communication and geographic barriers across the CU system.

Prez’s First Day of School

“He’s gotten a wide slice of what happens at CU,” the system’s Vice President for Communication Ken McConnellogue said of Kennedy’s first day. “He’d be the first to say that there’s a lot more he needs to learn and see.”

Kennedy’s cautious entrance could be due in part to the controversy that surrounded his nomination to the presidency by the Board of Regents.

Many of Kennedy’s initial visits to the various CU campuses have been marred by protests manned by angry students, disgruntled faculty and outraged community members.

McConnellogue said Kennedy “understands that there’s a lot of passion out there about issues.

“He heard from people through the process and he’s going to do some things that will address some of the concerns,” McConnellogue said.

The Contract

Although many of the protests have focused on the anti-gay marriage stance Kennedy took in congress and his mixed record as president at the University of North Dakota, others have called out perceived superfluities in his contract.

“Kennedy gets an extra $50,000 for visiting four communities” outside the Front Range, NBC 9 News anchor Kyle Clark tweeted last month, and “another $50,000 the day he turns in a proposal for a diversity and inclusion campaign.”

That’s in addition to a suite at CU football games and season tickets to both men’s and women’s basketball.

“He didn’t write the contract,” McConnellogue said. “That was something that the Regents developed and presented to him.

“You could say those incentives are easily attainable, and there’s probably something to that,” he continued, but McConnellogue felt the contract “identifies the areas the Regents have identified as being important.”

Rebecca Kantor, dean of the School of Education and Human Development, is eager leave the discord in the past.

“There has been controversy,” Kantor acknowledged, “but I think everyone is lining up to support the new president to be successful as he can be here.”