Christopher Kennedy’s role as a reformer has its roots in the unlikeliest of settings: a small gathering of Illinois’ political and social elite in a downtown Chicago residence.
As Kennedy tells it, during the December 2008 dinner, he was asked the difference between Chicago and his native Boston. As Kennedy replied, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn listened attentively.
“In Boston, everyone knew the president of Boston College. Everyone knew the president of Harvard. I went around the table and asked everyone to name the presidents of Northwestern, the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago. Nobody could do that,” Kennedy recalled.
“In Boston, there is great interplay between the college presidents and the politicians. That’s not true in Illinois. And that’s a detriment to the state, because if you want to want to improve Illinois’s economic prospects, you need public officials to support your universities with grants and other funding,” Kennedy told his fellow diners.
Quinn remembered that conversation, and almost a year later, when the University of Illinois was roiling from an admissions scandal that threatened to destroy the institution’s reputation and cherished academic standing, the governor asked Kennedy to help save the university by joining its board of trustees, which oversees all major decisions.
Upon his appointment to the U of I Board of Trustees in September 2009, the son of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy was immediately elected chairman, a position he has been annually re-elected to by his fellow trustees five times, including last January.
“I thought the U of I board was the right fit,” Quinn said. “I nominated him for the board because he has the same qualities as his father. He has a passion for social justice. He is someone who can build a team and work together with people. He’s very smart. And he has vision, which you’ve got to have when you’re chairman of a $6 billion corporation, which essentially what the University of Illinois is.”
While long expected to enter politics—there’s been speculation Kennedy would run for governor one day—he has settled comfortably into his role as U of I board chairman. Credited by supporters and critics as a skilled crisis manager, Kennedy, 49, has successfully steered the university beyond the admissions scandal and piloted it through the tenure and ultimate resignation of controversial university president Michael J. Hogan.
“Chris has a sensitive antenna to navigate those rough Illinois waters. But at the end of the day, I never saw Chris as a politician or political operative,” said Stanley Ikenberry, who was president of U of I from 1975-1995, was named interim president in October 2009 while Kennedy led the search for a permanent president.
Kennedy’s board appointment came after Quinn convened the Illinois Admissions Review Commission, an independent panel created to investigate U of I’s so-called “Category I” admissions policy, which essentially made it easier for well-connected applicants to gain acceptance to the university often over more qualified candidates.
The seven-member commission, chaired by former U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Abner Mikva, found that between 2005 and 2009, some 800 “Category I” applicants were accepted to U of I, even though in many cases their academic records were inferior to regular applicants.
This secret admissions system was used by university trustees, donors and state politicians, including then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, according to the commission’s 45-page report, issued in August 2009.
At first glance, the admissions scandal had little effect on U of I’s status among the nation’s top universities. Enrollment at the schools three campuses – Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield – has remained steady at about 77,000 between 2008-2012, according to U of I’s Division of Management Information website. And over the same period, U of I’s flagship Urbana-Champaign campus has ranked between 40 and 47 on U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings.
The real danger, according to Kennedy, was corrosive, internal damage: The administration’s loss of credibility among faculty members, and the threat that the best administrators and professors would leave U of I, while new qualified candidates would avoid applying for openings.
“Good governance should ultimately be about attracting great people to an organization,” Kennedy said.
Once the Illinois Admissions Review Commission released its report in August 2009, Quinn immediately asked for the resignation of all nine members of the U of I Board of Trustees, and seven complied.
The following month, Kennedy was among the seven new board members, joining the board along with the two trustees who refused to resign: Frances Carroll and James Montgomery.
It’s unclear even today whether Quinn engineered to have Kennedy elected board chairman. Neither man will discuss the particulars. But in a display of his family’s legendary political acumen, Kennedy reached out to Carroll and Montgomery prior to his first board meeting.
“There wasn’t any evidence that those two participated in the bad acts. They felt their resignation would be perceived as an admission of guilt. I called them and told them I wanted to work with them,” Kennedy said.
Montgomery, a Chicago attorney who stills serves on the U of I board, remembers the call.
“He called me, let me know the governor wanted him on the board, and asked for my support,” Montgomery remembered.
When Kennedy attended his first board meeting in September 2009, he was nominated for chairman by Montgomery and Quinn, attending the meeting as an ex-officio member, seconded the nomination.
Kennedy then directed the U of I board to accept the recommendations of the commission, which included eliminating the Category I admissions process, and in building a “firewall” around the admissions system to prevent future influence by trustees, donors and politicians.
He also persuaded the board to reduce its number of committees from 14 to four, further reducing its sphere of influence and greatly diminish the amount of clout that could be used to unfairly game the admission process.
“We removed the board from the day-to-day operations of the university,” Kennedy said.
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Longtime Chicago journalist and publisher Bernard Judge, who served on the Admissions Review Commission, thinks Kennedy has basically carried out the commission’s mandate.
“He seems to be working hard to do a good job,” Judge said. “I was pleased that the [U of I] board adopted our recommendations. I believe that report had an impact across the country. I know of a number of universities that asked for the report and followed closely what U of I was doing with it.”
Montgomery credits Kennedy with not only providing leadership during a time of crisis, but also successfully negotiating the political landmine that came with the chairmanship.
In subsequent years, as the U of I board trustees cast their annual votes for chairman, Montgomery has taken pride in nominating Kennedy, who was elected to his fifth term as chairman in January.
“Chris has the kind of judgment and reputation with the board to get things done,” Montgomery said. “He has an excellent mind and a tremendous insight into the politics of a situation…Without his leadership, I’m not sure how we would have gotten through this incident unscathed.”
Once he had the admissions scandal under control, Kennedy accepted the resignation of then-President B. Joseph White, under whose tenure much of the Category I practices had taken place.
Stanley Ikenberry, who was president of U of I from 1975-1995, was named interim president in October 2009 while Kennedy led the search for a permanent president.
In May 2010, the board hired Michael J. Hogan as the new president.
Hogan, a longtime university administrator, portrayed himself as a crusader who would not only repair U of I’s tarnished reputation, but also streamline its management. He centralized some administrative functions, including human resources and information technology, to cuts costs across three U of I campuses. These and other efficiency measures resulted in $30 million in annual cost savings.
But some of the university’s constituencies bristled at Hogan’s hard-charging ways and fought against his reorganization efforts.
Tension increased when some faculty members released emails that they claimed showed how Hogan bullied people who didn’t agree with him.
That simmering conflict boiled over when anonymous, incendiary emails to faculty were traced to a computer of Hogan’s chief of staff, according to press accounts of the controversy.
During the height of the embarrassing situation, Kennedy publicly supported Hogan. But when it became clear that the relationship between Hogan and faculty was beyond repair, Kennedy accepted Hogan’s resignation March 2012.
“Obviously, not every new hire works out.” Kennedy said. “When it doesn’t work, you take action and move on. You don’t fret. You don’t linger in shame, guilt, or anything else.”
Montgomery, a fellow Democrat, credits Kennedy for trying to work things out with Hogan, but for also knowing when it was time to cut his losses.
“Initially, he was prepared to back Dr. Hogan to the hilt,” Montgomery said. “But when it became apparent that he [Hogan] could not repair his relationship with faculty, Chris realized it was best for Dr. Hogan to resign.”
Kennedy acknowledges that the incident was another black eye for the university. But he also praised Hogan’s work.
“I think it’s hard to win the war and win the peace. Mike fundamentally reorganized the university, and when he left, it was like Churchill after the war,” Kennedy said, referring to the British prime minister who led his country to victory in World War II, yet lost a subsequent peacetime election.
(The BGA repeatedly tried to contact Hogan, who was unavailable for comment. A university spokesman said he was on sabbatical.)
Kennedy and most board members agree the selection of longtime U of I administrator Robert Easter, as the new president is a positive move.
“Give Chris credit that he’s been able to make it through another crisis, and we ended up with a wonderful president,” said Karen Hasara, a Republican member of the U of I board.
These days, one of Kennedy’s main worries is the approximately $500 million in financial support he says the state owes U of I, but has been unable to pay because of budget woes. Board chair Kennedy and members of the university board serve for free but get reimbursed for expenses, according to the state’s www.appointments.illinois.gov.
He also continues to fret about attracting the best administrators, faculty and students, and places great value on the U of I board being transparent.
“The goal is good governance…a board that operates with integrity, transparency, solid structure and a philosophy of active restrain can contribute greatly to the reputation and success of the institution,” Kennedy said. “With great leadership, we can attract great researchers, the graduate students who follow them, and the students who want to be a part of an institution with a reputation for hiring the best in the business.”
Aside from the U of I post, Kennedy–who for years ran Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, which was owned by one of his famous family’s real estate interests–is currently developing a downtown high rise and serving on various non-profit boards. (Kennedy is a member of the BGA’s Civic Leadership Committee).
And as he continues to lead the U of I board, Kennedy’s focus is on future goals rather than dwell on past accomplishments.
“My goal was really about creating an entity that would act for the state in the best possible way and contribute to the life of the state in the best possible fashion,” he said.