UND President Wynne talks with radio host Scott Hennen on AM 1100 The Flag

UND President Wynne talks with radio host Scott Hennen on AM 1100 The Flag

University of North Dakota Interim President Joshua Wynne speaks on Aug. 15, 2019, with Scott Hennen, radio host with AM 1100 The Flag in Fargo, N.D. Image: YouTube screenshot.

University of North Dakota Interim President Joshua Wynne embarked on a mini-tour of North Dakota media last week, speaking with the Bismarck Tribune’s editorial board on Wednesday and radio host Scott Hennen on Thursday.

The interview with Hennen took place in the Fargo studios of AM 1100 The Flag. A video of the interview can be found at the station’s webpage. The topics discussed include faculty recruitment, the demographic changes affecting higher education, the UND Alumni Association & Foundation’s record fundraising and Wynne’s impressions of UND from his first day on campus back in 2004.

A transcript of the interview is below. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.




Hennen: We are pleased to be joined today by the president of the University of the North Dakota, President Josh Wynne. Josh, how are you? Good to see you!

Wynne: I’m good, Scott! Good to see you.

Hennen: I love the green tie!

Wynne: Thank you very much. We like to show our colors.

Hennen: There’s no green like that UND green.

Wynne: Absolutely.

Hennen: There’s just isn’t! I mean, I know that will offend all of the Bison fans, but it’s THE green.

Wynne: On the other hand, there are many colors in the rainbow, so it’s OK that there are other colors.

Hennen: That’s true! We’re willing to share the colors.

So, I know you’re interim president. Do you like that label?

Wynne: I like that it’s interim, but I also like that the chancellor and the State Board of Higher Education made it clear that while the time period is limited, I am the president. So, I’m not a caretaker; I wouldn’t have taken the job on if I were just marking time until the next person comes.

The University is moving forward. My job is to keep it moving forward, and that’s what I intend to do, for whatever time it is until the permanent president is announced

Hennen: And that’s important for people to know, right?

You also have a history there. Talk about the first day you walked on campus at UND.

Wynne: That was in 2004. I was recruited here to be basically the second-in-command in the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

And the first day on campus — I remember very clearly; I believe it was Sept. 16, 2004 — I was very impressed with the enthusiasm with which I was greeted and the great plans that we had for the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and a lot of those plans have really come to fruition over the last 15 years.

I’m going into my 11th year as dean of the school, and the 11 years are matched by the two months I’ve been interim president. So it’s been an interesting contrast.

But the difference between my first day on campus and now is really impressive, considering the distance that the school and the university have come in those ensuing years.

Hennen: So, you came here and were sort of surprised by what you found. Do you think that’s something that can be repeated over and over? Can you bring people here and they’ll say, “Wow, this is happening here!”, and they’ll bring their level of talent to keep growing the university?

Wynne: The surprise was on the positive side. And when we’re recruiting non-North Dakotans to, for instance, a faculty position, the key thing is actually to get them here. There are some people – and I was one of them, quite frankly – who say, “Where’s North Dakota?”

For people who were not born here, it may not be intuitive to know all of the really nice things that are happening in North Dakota.

But if we can get them on campus — whether it’s UND or NDSU or any of the other campuses in the system — once we get them here, then we have a real chance of recruiting them here.

And in a lot of cases, they then become part of the community. Like my wife Susan and me: we’ve been here for 15 years, we have no plans to leave, and our neighbors, actually, now say, “Yeah, we know you moved here, but you two are North Dakotans.”

Hennen: (laughs)

Wynne: And that sense of acceptance is really nice.

Hennen: You got the endorsement from the neighbors.

Wynne: The neighbors did it, and if the neighbors did it, I think we’re OK.

Hennen: And I’ll tell you, that’s not an easy endorsement to get! I’ve been here since 1983-84, and I still am considered an import sometimes. Of course, I’m a Minnesota boy, so not too far away.

So there’s a bit of that in the water in North Dakota.

Wynne: Absolutely. But we’ve worked hard to be part of the community. I mentioned earlier that we spend some of our time in Fargo and some in Grand Forks, because my wife is a full-time cardiologist in Fargo. So we have a house in Fargo but we also have a townhouse up in Grand Forks, and we’ve divided our time. Now, we’re almost completely moved in to the university house on the UND campus.

So, we’re very much a part of the community, and we revel in that. We enjoy it.

Hennen: And that’s great. Talk a little bit about the recent news about the alumni foundation and the record fundraising. That’s good news, any way you look at it.

Why is that happening? What’s going on there?

Wynne: I think that there have been some notable things that got into the news that maybe some people thought would get in the way of fundraising. And I think what the record year says is that people understand that UND is moving forward, that the programs are right for the citizens of North Dakota, and that that is worth investing in if you are a donor.

And that some of the notoriety that got into the press, while it’s real, should not cloud the direction of the university. The university is moving forward, we’re trying to meet the needs of the people of North Dakota, on an educational standpoint, on a service standpoint and on a discovery standpoint — discovering new knowledge that helps the people of North Dakota.

And UND is doing that.

So I think what it says is that people understand there can be bumps in the road, if you will, but the overall direction is positive and is what people like. They like the things that we’re doing. The new strategic plan – seven principles, seven points to a plan that was widely vetted.

And I think most people say, “Yes. UND is headed in the right direction.” That gets manifested by donors being so very generous to the university and to the foundation, and thus most importantly, impacting students in a very positive way.

Hennen: Some of that “in the news,” that controversy that you mentioned, came at the hands of (former President) Mark Kennedy. So did the strategic plan. Was there more good than bad, in your mind, in the leadership of Mark Kennedy?

Wynne: The answer is absolutely yes, and the way I would say it is, “Let’s not confuse the message with the messenger.”

Most of the programs – I would say, virtually all — I have not only no problem with, but I and my colleagues, fellow faculty members and the community, actually think they were right, too.

Let’s go through some of them. The strategic plan: widely vetted, widely supported. Is it perfect? Of course not. Is it going to evolve over time, as circumstances change? Of course. But it’s a really good starting point.

Addressing deferred maintenance on campus: clearly, that’s an important thing to do. It really hasn’t been addressed properly before.

Beautifying the campus. Taking care of road construction that needed to be done. Addressing issues such as student debt. Those are important things going forward, and the fact that the messenger of them was somewhat controversial at times shouldn’t detract from the importance of the projects.

And the projects, I think, were largely spot on.

Hennen: You know, Mark Kennedy was a friend of mine; I knew him when he was in Congress. Obviously, he’s a Minnesotan as well. I think he might have spent too much time in Washington, when you talk about the messenger, because he just kind of had that abrasiveness to him sometimes — (but) he was always thinking, he was always going, he was never a guy who was going to go the wrong way.

So I think the messenger and the message analogy is a good one. And you have something there to build on, right?

Wynne: That’s actually one of the reasons why I accepted the job as interim president. It isn’t like there’s a tremendous amount that’s broken, as far as programs or personnel or moving the university forward.

I felt that I was coming into a situation that didn’t have a lot of potholes in it, other than the one we’re talking about, and I think quite frankly that my track record over the last 15 years is that I can try to work with people, I think I do effectively, and that what’s important, again, is that the message, the substance, is really a lot more important than the messenger.

Hennen: And at this point, that’s rear-view mirror, right?

Wynne: So, I have an expression about that that I’d like to use, because I agree with you. And the expression is, “It’s OK to look in the rear-view mirror. Just don’t stare.”

Hennen: (Laughs) Or you’re going to crash into something, right?

Wynne: So it is rear-view. I don’t think we should forget about it; I think it should inform how we do things moving forward. But I don’t think focusing on it is the thing to do. I agree completely.

Hennen: You’re talking about a lot of positive things that are going on. I want to talk about, when we come back, where maybe something is broken. Where, maybe, you see the biggest blinking light on the dashboard of UND and what you want to begin the effort to take on.

(Commerical break)

Hennen: We’re finishing our chat with Josh Wynne, who’s the president of UND right now. Interim in that position; there is a committee now stood up to search for a president, no timeline set; they are looking. In the meantime, President Wynne, who of course has been a part of UND since 2004, is leading the ship.

What worries you about UND as you take on this new post? I hear people say, for instance, “The restaurants are hurting because kids aren’t there any more; they’ve cleared out. There’s this whole new thing that’s online, but it’s just not the same UND any more.”

Is that true?

Wynne: No, I don’t think it is. But let me just answer your question about what worries me. What have I seen in this long time period that I’ve been interim president? It’s all of two months.

Hennen: (laughs)

Wynne: Remember, even though I’ve been at UND for 15 years, for those 15 years (minus two months), I’ve seen it through the prism — through the lens — of someone who’s focused on health care and educating health professionals.

Over the last two months, my horizon has widened substantially as I’m looking at the entire campus. And I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.

The single most important issue that you’ve touched on is the change that will occur over the next decade or two decades.

The No. 1 change is a demographic change, where there are going to be — not only in North Dakota but throughout the entire United States — a diminishing number of high-school graduates, just because the Baby Boomers aren’t having babies any more, the babies are growing up – where all of higher education actually will have fewer of the traditional students.

On the other hand, there is at the same time a growing feeling that there will be a change in how we deliver educational products – as you said, online as part of it.

And a third big challenge is a large reservoir, let’s call them, of people, citizens, who have either started college and never finished or never even started.

It’s a minority of North Dakotans and Americans who actually have a bachelor’s degree or more. And in the changing economy that will be occurring in the future, we need to have our  citizens – especially North Dakotans – prepared.

I see that as the biggest challenge, the biggest issue for all institutions, and UND in particular, to make sure that we are anticipating the needs of North Dakotans from an educational standpoint and are prepared to deliver that educational program in a way that they find attractive.

And that they complete. You know, it turns out that a little over a third of Americans have that bachelor’s degree or more, but two-thirds of Americans actually have some degree of college – but they didn’t finish.

So, we need to think very strategically about how we meet the needs of North Dakotans so that they get the training and the degrees — if that’s what’s necessary — so that they can be competitive in the changing marketplace that is occurring and will continue to occur over the coming decades.

Hennen: So if you look at UND over the last 10 years and over the next 10, what’s the right number? How many students should be on campus, traditional vs. nontraditional – what’s the number? Is there a goal?

Wynne: I do not let to set numeric goals because when you do that, the tendency is to fill those numbers no matter what. I would say the right number is the number of students that we can accommodate and give them the tools that they need.

Saying that we need to have a certain number of students so that, for instance, we can maintain our budget – I’m not taking that approach. I’m taking the approach of, what are the needs of the community that we have to meet? We will right size to be able to do that.

That may mean we’re bigger; it may mean we’re smaller; it may mean we’re the same size. But the goal needs to be satisfying the need and not satisfying the financial appetite of UND in some arbitrary way.

Hennen: Makes sense. If you had a magic wand, would it grow? Do you think it does get bigger? Do you think there’s a market there? Which of those three do you think it does?

Wynne: I actually think that there’s a large market – a better term might be a large volume of citizens – who could profit from better tools so that they are even more competitive in the workplace.

That includes military, it includes people who maybe thought about college but maybe couldn’t or didn’t complete it, and it’s nontraditional students.

So if we look at all of those, I think that there are many people out there who could profit from a UND educational program.

Hennen: Fascinating conversation. Thanks for the time! We appreciate it, and we look forward to more conversations for our listeners.

Wynne: I enjoyed it, Scott. Thank you!