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New higher-ed chief has high energy

Kendell praised as capable and unflappable

Richard Kendell is named higher-ed chief. His wife, Joan, is at his side.
Richard Kendell is named higher-ed chief. His wife, Joan, is at his side.
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

In describing Richard Kendell, his current boss, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, uses words like "capable," "competent," "pleasant" and "unflappable."

Those are qualities that prompted Leavitt to practically hunt down Kendell to become the governor's deputy over higher education, public education and economic development. The two have known each other for 20 years.

"I had always hoped for a chance to work together," Leavitt told the Deseret Morning News. "He succeeds at virtually everything he undertakes. He has a pattern of success that's unmatched."

The state Board of Regents apparently felt the same way. It rewarded Kendell recently with the job of state commissioner of higher education. He'll take over for Cecilia Foxley, who is giving up the post after 10 years of service.

"I've always thought he was the most outstanding individual in education," Foxley said.

Kendell has been a high school English teacher, a college professor and an administrator in both public and higher education. As Davis School District superintendent, he was the state's superintendent of the year and one of four finalists for the national superintendent of the year. He also has experience in the computer and commercial development industries. Education, though, is his first love.

When Leavitt was looking for a deputy, Foxley told him there was one "logical" choice.

"There is no one that I know who can work as effectively with people from all areas," she said. "And they like him.

"He's just so likeable. He's just so easy with people," she said. He doesn't get "puffed up" about his background, and he even has a "delightful" sense of humor.

Kendell will need what he dubs his "robust" sense of humor in dealing with an already familiar Legislature, which Leavitt calls the "ultimate" funding source for higher education.

"I feel confident he's well respected in the Legislature," Leavitt said. "He has the capacity to be firm, in a very pleasant way."

Many talks between the two have centered around "bold" reforms and changes Kendell has in mind.

Kendell said he wants to change the trend of decreasing state funding and to get the Legislature to give a higher priority to higher education.

"I want to be visible among legislators," Kendell said. "I want to work with them.

"I want them to see the commissioner is a person who has objective, fair, accurate information they can rely on to help them make decisions."

Kendell was selected through a nationwide search in which he had support from both sides of the political fence.

"He's thoughtful, he's bright, he's going to do a good job," said Senate Minority Whip Ron Allen, D-Stansbury Park.

And his commitment level is always high, no matter what he does. Just ask his wife, Joan.

"He always is one of those who gives 110 percent," she said. She laughs at the thought of becoming a career "widow" again. "He's just high-energy. He comes home, he'll cook dinner, he'll clean.

"He is what you see," she added. "He's just a nice, thoughtful person. I've always appreciated the fact that he appreciates everyone."

Kendell grew up in Ogden. For years he and his wife made their home in Bountiful, raising two sons and two daughters, all now married and in the medical field.

Now the two live in North Salt Lake, right on a golf course, which is where you'll find them most Friday nights during the summer.

Rep. Bradley Johnson, R-Emery, said regents did well to choose someone who understands Utah and is familiar with its culture.

"I don't think we have to go out of the area to choose a commissioner," he said.

Johnson co-chairs the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee. He already has some leanings on the subject of funding, and he's not necessarily in favor of spending more than $160 million on new or remolded buildings recently identified by regents.

"We're kind of on a limited ability to fund higher education," Johnson said, adding he's "reluctant" to bond for more buildings, preferring instead paying for what the state can afford.

The 2003 Legislature only found money for half of the maintenance and operating costs of Utah's 10 colleges and universities. Johnson might be more inclined to fund existing building costs and concentrate more on pay increases for faculty at a time when university presidents fear losing their best and brightest.

Another "critical" area of focus for Kendell will be to implement the master plan developed by regents. In that plan, the roles of universities are more clearly defined.

For example, Weber State University is to concentrate on educating future teachers. Over the past three years, it has grown by about 3,000 students. But the school has had to pay the operating costs associated with educating more than 1,600 of those students out of its own pocket, with no help from the state.

"We need the support from the state to fund the students that are here," said Weber State University President Ann Millner.

That's where Kendell comes in.

With a hand out for higher education, Kendell will go to the Legislature with a message.

"You can't continue to expand this system," Kendell said, "with new campuses and a lot of new programs when you can't properly fund and support the ones we have."

When Kendell was interviewed for his new job by university presidents, he was asked about his vision for the future.

"It's not expansion," he told them. "It's clearly building institutional quality."

In part, that may mean pushing for higher faculty salaries.

"You can't go for extended periods without doing something to keep salaries competitive with other states," he said. "Higher-ed faculty is mobile. They will pack up and leave on you.

"We need to provide better salaries for our faculty so they feel this is a good place to be."


E-MAIL: sspeckman@desnews.com