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Kris Engelstad McGarry / Special to Forum Communications

'I want to see him do his job': Kris Engelstad McGarry describes 'hostile' relationship with UND administration

GRAND FORKS—The daughter of Ralph Engelstad, a trustee of the Engelstad Family Foundation, said Wednesday, May 9, that her working relationship with UND President Mark Kennedy has deteriorated, possibly resulting in fewer Engelstad Foundation dollars donated to the university.

Kris Engelstad McGarry said in the two years since she first met Kennedy their relations have been marked by the university's "veiled threats" of litigation over the Ralph Engelstad Arena contract. Communications have been "very passive aggressive."

"In fact, it's been quite hostile at times," McGarry said. In an early meeting, she said, Kennedy told her "you won't like me when I'm mad."

Ralph Engelstad Arena, a $110 million gift from her father to the university, was completed in 2001 as the new home to UND hockey. The arena, contracted to be turned over to UND in 2030, was just one topic of many discussed in a wide-ranging interview between McGarry and Forum News Service. McGarry requested the meeting.

Tax records show the Engelstad Foundation has donated more than $12 million to the UND Foundation since 2011.

When asked if that kind of funding is in jeopardy in the future, she said, "Well, I will say that the funding to the school itself, yes."

Declining donations

Despite any feelings of disrespect, the Engelstad Family Foundation still maintained a steady flow of monetary gifts to the school. In recent years, nonprofit finance reports obtained by Forum News Service show the philanthropic organization gave $4 million in 2011 to the UND Alumni Association and Foundation. In the years following, the family foundation gave $2 million per year through 2015.

DeAnna Carlson Zink, CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, said those donations were part of an earlier pledge by the Engelstad Foundation during the ND Spirit Campaign, a 2005-2013 fundraising push.

"They were one of our early gifts," Carlson Zink said of the Engelstad dollars, which Kennedy estimated at $20 million.

Regardless, that flow of money came to an abrupt stop when Kennedy took office in 2016, which Carlson Zink said marked the conclusion of the Engelstad pledge.

For that year, the family foundation gave only $20,000 to the UND alumni group. In that same year, the foundation gave $37,000 to the club hockey program at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Financial reports for 2017 aren't yet available.

Regardless of the timing of the Engelstad foundation pledge, she said the sharp decline is a direct result of her unsatisfying dealings with Kennedy and other members of his administration.

For his part, the president told Forum News Service that he's "always had good, cordial and civil relationships with Kris in all my exchanges with her."

Arena discussions

Though Engelstad Arena has now been in use under different presidents for more than 15 years, McGarry said issues with use of the facility have recently escalated.

According to her, Kennedy characterized the arrangement made between the university and her father, Ralph, as written to the benefit of the donor at the expense of UND.

"(He said) my dad made a bad deal when he first gave them this gift," she said, a comment Kennedy said he doesn't recall saying.

McGarry lives in Las Vegas, where her parents settled to expand Ralph Engelstad's casino business. Engelstad, originally from Thief River Falls, played hockey at UND before starting a career in construction and later expanding into the gambling business.

Engelstad is known as much for his giving to UND as his staunch backing of its Fighting Sioux nickname and logo.

The school eventually retired the Sioux name and logo at the behest of the NCAA and now officially uses the Fighting Hawks nickname for its athletic teams. But the Sioux logo still remains in the Ralph, embedded in marble floors, and on seats and other fixtures.

Because of that, McGarry said, Kennedy has accused the family of "creating brand confusion" for the school, a charge she views as unfair.

The look of the arena is one thing. But hints made by Kennedy of litigation over the arena, McGarry says, are a key issue straining relations.

She said the president has threatened legal action in the past over parts of the arena contract, mainly over points such as how ticket revenues are shared.

Some of the unease with the arena preceded Kennedy, she said, as past UND presidents have pushed the boundaries of the agreement. However, she continued, with Kennedy, the extent of disagreement seems to have taken a new intensity.

"I will say (Kennedy) has started two separate conversations with me and said 'You know that's something I could sue over,'" McGarry said. "And I said, 'You don't want to go there with me. Do you want to talk about that now?' And he said 'no, I'm just saying I could.'"

Kennedy said he doesn't remember the conversation taking that turn, adding that his office remains "highly appreciative of the contribution of the Ralph to UND."

Fraught relations

The root of McGarry's comments, as she describes it, is how she feels her family and its foundation has been treated by Kennedy and preceding administrations.

She said the last president the family shared a strong relationship with was Thomas Clifford, a personal friend of her father who retired in 1992.

Clifford, widely lauded in the region, died in 2009.

That shaky rapport with administration was hurt even further by the news earlier this year that Kennedy was interviewing for another job less than two years after starting at UND.

The quick development so early in his tenure seemed to confirm a trend for McGarry. In the past 16 years, she said, UND has had three full presidents and an interim, each with "their own need, their own take, their own want."

Exits aside, McGarry had found Kennedy to be either "tone deaf" or to show "wishful thinking" in his recent dealings with her. As an example of that, she said that, when he heard she was in town this week, Kennedy asked if she'd be interested in coming to campus to look at other "investment opportunities" there.

Compounding the issues between her family's foundation and UND, she said, was what she described as a consistent difficulty with arranging effective meetings.

"I said let's meet anytime in April or May, I'm open," she said. "He said 'I'm not—not available.'" What's more, when the two did meet, she said it was difficult to get a one-on-one discussion away from a full UND delegation.

Kennedy denied not making time for McGarry, saying he'd been accommodating in the past and had set future dates aside to meet with her. As for the group meetings, he said that was a common means of managing ongoing affairs.

When asked if he thought McGarry wasn't being truthful in her characterization of their dealings, Kennedy said he "wouldn't suggest she's being dishonest."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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