No, Ms. McGarry. You Don’t Get Control.
Kris Engelstad McGarry is at it again, holding a gun to the heads of North Dakota higher education leaders and, ipso facto, to the heads of North Dakota citizens.
This time the Engelstad family is threatening to quit giving money to the University of North Dakota until President Mark Kennedy is gone. McGarry refused to utter the word “fired,” but she didn’t need to.
Gun To Our Heads. Again.
It’s far from the first time for the late UND alumnus Ralph Engelstad and his heirs.
I’ve written about the Engelstad-UND-North Dakota love-hate relationship before, as well as the family’s threats to withhold funds from the university and state.
The first time was shortly after the North Dakota State Board of Education voted to accelerate a deadline for tribal approval or disapproval of the UND Fighting Sioux nickname.
At the time, McGarry called it “a sad day for North Dakota.”
My take, in “A Good Day for UND & North Dakota,” was, “With all due respect to McGarry, many North Dakotans view it as a day of redemption, when some sense was restored to a state that thrives on common sense.”
The piece referred to “the now infamous ‘Dear Chuck’ letter to then-UND President Charles Kupchella” from Ralph Engelstad. In it, Engelstad said if the Sioux name and logo were not retained, he would halt work on the half-completed Ralph Engelstad Arena.
“Please do not consider this letter a threat in any manner, as it is not intended to be,” Engelstad wrote….
Um, yeah. That was a threat, all right, and a strong one, at that. The gun was clearly being held to the heads of Kupchella, UND, the North Dakota University System, the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education and North Dakota as a whole.
But life went on. Engelstad and his family continued to give the university money, even after the Fighting Sioux nickname was replaced with Fighting Hawks.
The whole nickname controversy has been put to bed, thankfully. Well, sort of. The fact that many Sioux fans still cling to the old moniker, refusing to cheer for their Fighting Hawks, suggest it’s not entirely out of its misery. Feelings continue to fester.
Here We Are. Again.
So here we are, some 19 years after that first gun-to-our-heads threat, and a decade after McGarry proclaimed a “sad day” for the state. In her 2009 statements, she criticized the State Board and UND President Robert Kelly for a “lack of conviction” in “fighting for the Sioux name and logo.”
Now it’s 2019, and the Engelstad family is flexing its cash-filled muscles once again. And, once again, ipso facto, it’s trying to control North Dakota University System leadership and citizens of North Dakota.
This time McGarry’s mad because, she says, Kennedy promoted someone who should not have been promoted, he’s “alienated donors” (unnamed, of course), and he received a positive midyear review from the NDUS chancellor.
She’s been rattling this saber since May of 2018, when she told the media that communication between the Engelstad family and Kennedy had become “quite hostile at times.”
Why People Give. Or At Least Why They Should.
There are many outstanding reasons for donating money to a private or public university. Most are altruistic.
Yes, admittedly, there’s the ego boost one must get from seeing one’s name on a building, program or stadium. And, yes, the tax advantages must be fantastic.
But most reasons for donating to institutions of higher learning are about something greater:
- Improving higher education
- Improving opportunities for students
- Lending students a hand up (scholarships)
- Advancing knowledge
- Plain ol’ love of alma mater
You’ll notice “control” does not appear on the list.
Even so, it would be naïve to suggest people who give lots of money don’t have some say as to what happens at a university. They do, first because of any stipulations made with their gifts, and second because of the unspoken potential of their not donating more in the future.
But donations do not – or at least should not – give donors power to be kingmakers, or in this case, president-unmakers. There is no promise – or at least there should not be – that they’ll get to place or remove presidents based on their priorities or whims. Or control curricula. Or anything else.
No, ma’am. Control you do not get.
Leave It to Us
I am not defending Kennedy, his actions or lack thereof.
I leave that to the people who monitor his job performance and hold his UND career in their hands. Which is exactly what McGarry and the rest of the Engelstad family should do.
It’s one thing for them to be frustrated; the frustration might even be justified. But telling North Dakota it needs to get rid of one of its university presidents is something else entirely.
She didn’t come right out and say, “Kennedy needs to be fired,” but that’s exactly what she said. Loud and clear.
She’s got chutzpah, you gotta give her that. You also have to acknowledge the good the Engelstads have done for UND.
But we don’t have to like the way they sometimes try to throw their cash-stuffed weight around. That should leave a bad taste in every North Dakotan’s mouth.
And we shouldn’t allow them to do it that way anymore.
Just Keep It
You don’t like who’s running UND? Too bad. You don’t like who he’s promoting, and how much of a raise he’s giving them? Who cares. You don’t think his bosses should have given him a decent performance review? Tough break.
You don’t like what’s happening at UND? Fine.
Give UND your money. Or just keep it.
Either way, it’s your prerogative.
Our prerogative is to refuse to take any action whatsoever just because you’re holding that gun to our heads.
Because the time has finally come for North Dakota to tell the Engelstad family:
© Martin C. Fredricks IV, 2019
The Forum, Fargo, N.D., published a shorter version of this post on 3/7/19.
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