‘Love your people’

A fitting leadership philosophy for a university president? You bet, said speakers at the inauguration of Andrew Armacost, 13th president of UND


“When people ask me, ‘What’s it like being the daughter of Andy Armacost?’, I can sum up the experience in one sentence,” said Audrey Armacost, President Armacost’s daughter, speaking at the inauguration of Andy Armacost as UND’s 13th president.

Audrey Armacost’s single sentence: “You can’t go anywhere without him running into someone he knows. Stores, restaurants, even airports, someone will always come up and start talking to him.

“I have everyone beat, though,” Audrey Armacost continued with a smile. “That’s because I was getting my picture taken in front of the Eiffel Tower – when he saw people he knew.”

This story in UND Today will describe the UND charter, the official mace, the Presidential Chain of Office and the other trappings of the formal inauguration ceremony in due course. But first, let’s listen to the speakers at the event, which took place on Monday in the Chester Fritz Auditorium on the UND campus.

For the speakers were people such as Audrey and her sister, Ava Armacost, who know UND’s new president well. And taken together, their stories offered a vivid portrait of the man – a portrait that shows why Casey Ryan, vice chair of the State Board of Higher Education, in his remarks described Armacost is “the right person who’s in the right place at the right time for the University of North Dakota.”

President Andy Armacost’s wife, Kathy (left) and daughter, Audrey (right), drape around his neck UND’s official Presidential Chain of Office. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

A teacher at his core

For example, here’s Audrey Armacost again, on the fact that so many people remember her Ph.D.-from-MIT, retired Air Force brigadier general dad:

“The even more incredible part of this phenomenon is that he remembers them right back,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you were a high school friend, a former student or someone who sold him windows 20 years ago, he will remember you.”

Understand, there’s more to that trait than meets the eye, Audrey continued. “On the outside, it may seem like he has a photographic memory. But behind the scenes, he puts in the work.

“Once on a long car drive, he had me quiz him on the roster for the course he was teaching that semester.”

Megan Wasylow, president of the UND Staff Senate, echoed Audrey Armacost’s observations.

From the moment he accepted his position as UND’s new president, Armacost “immediately started rewarding us with a tremendous level of support and kindness,” Wasylow said in her remarks.

“You have an incredible ability to make people feel comfortable, energized and welcomed,” she said to Armacost. “The most amazing example of this that I’ve had the pleasure to witness so far was when you started doing push-ups with our Fighting Hawk mascot.

“I also tried introducing you to a few staff during the same event, but you already knew them by name.”

Ava Armacost, Audrey’s sister and Andy and Kathy Armacost’s other daughter, expanded on Wasylow’s thoughts in her comments. “At his core, he is a teacher,” Ava said of her father.

“He has taken every opportunity to teach us something new. … He’s so much of a teacher that he finds the most unexpected opportunities to educate his daughters. For example, every trip we took to Disney World turned into an operations-research lesson,” operations research being President Armacost’s Ph.D. field.

“While we were in line waiting for the ride, he would quiz us on how to make the line more efficient!” Ava said to laughter in the Chester Fritz.

Of course, “the underlying theme of my dad’s operations research lessons isn’t necessarily do your math homework and get a degree,” Ava continued.

“The most valuable lesson I learned from him is when we continually strive for knowledge, we’re doing so to not only better ourselves, but the world around us. … Dad, I’m so incredibly grateful for you as a father and role model.

“UND is lucky to have you,” she concluded.

UND could not have hoped for a leader with stronger credentials, said Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski in his remarks.

But Bochenski is a former professional hockey player, and he learned about character in the rink. High among those lessons: “Degrees don’t lead people. Leaders do,” he said.

“President Armacost is that leader. He’s honest and respectful,” “does things for the right reasons” and shows “high character and integrity.

“Believe it or not, I didn’t play with a lot of Ph.D.s from MIT during my playing career,” Bochenski said, again to laughter.

“But I could easily have imagined playing on a team with President Armacost in the lead. … I could not be more optimistic about the future of UND under his leadership.”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the inauguration ceremony was livestreamed rather than being open to the public. Shown here is the ceremony taking place on the Chester Fritz Auditorium stage. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

The ring story

Which brings us to “the ring story,” a signature moment in President Armacost’s career as an Air Force Academy faculty member and dean.

Denny Elbert, co-chair (with Casey Ryan) of the Presidential Search Committee that recommended Armacost to the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education, told the story during his remarks.

When the search committee co-chairs first met with Andy and Kathy Armacost, “Casey and I asked Andy to share an example of his ‘students first’ approach,” Elbert recounted.

Andy and Kathy looked at each other, nodded and said, “The ring story.”

To understand this story, Elbert said, you must understand that Air Force Academy students called Armacost “Uncle Andy” behind his back. “Now, this is a nickname that he prefers not to follow him to UND, and I believe we’ve honored that request so far,” Elbert said.

But “from multiple sources, we found that the Air Force cadets used ‘Uncle Andy’ because of his ongoing efforts to put their needs and their interests always first.”

On to the story, which involves a cadet who’d been referred to Armacost for academic counseling because the cadet was facing dismissal.

“After that meeting (with Armacost), which sounds like it was somewhat intense, the cadet was given a second chance,” Elbert said.

“But still things did not improve. A couple of months later, the cadet was referred for further counseling as he had reached pretty much the point of no return.” And after that intense session, again with Armacost, “he was given a third and a final chance.

“That worked. He indeed did turn things around. He made great progress in his academics, and he was back on track for graduation.”

The time came the Ring Ceremony, an Air Force Academy tradition in which juniors receive their graduating class rings.

“At the Ring Ceremony that spring, the cadet, who was now ready for his final year, made a point of seeking out Gen. Armacost and Kathy,” Elbert said.

“The cadet thanked Andy profoundly for his faith, his belief in him and the extra chances.” Then the cadet asked Armacost if he’d like to see the cadet’s class ring. Having seen many class rings, Armacost said yes, “but he wasn’t sure why it was so important to the cadet,” Elbert said.

“The cadet pulled off his ring. And he showed Dr. Armacost and Kathy that inside the ring was not only his own name, but also was engraved, ‘Uncle Andy.’

“This ring, to be worn by the cadet throughout his final year at the Academy, his military career, and most likely his lifetime – he would have Uncle Andy with him, always,” Elbert said.

“With that story, Dr. Ryan and I knew we had found a truly focused student leader in Dr. Armacost. And his life of service, his dedication to family, and his focus on serving others have been evident since his arrival at UND.”

Streamers at the inauguration ceremony’s close welcomed Andy Armacost as UND’s 13th president. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Duly chosen

Like the Academy’s ring ceremony, UND has its own traditions, and inauguration is one. Prominently displayed on stage on Monday was a copy of the original Charter of the University of North Dakota. The charter was enacted in 1883 by the Dakota Territorial Assembly, and its enabling legislation creating UND was the first to use the official term North Dakota, State Board co-chair Casey Ryan pointed out.

Also present was the official mace of UND – “made from the wood of the first building of the University, Old Main,” Ryan said, and recalling UND’s evolution from a single building with eight graduating seniors to the international, $600-million-a-year institution it is today.

The official Presidential Chain of Office bears the names of all fully appointed UND presidents, and the Presidential Medallion bears the University Seal. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today

“And finally, before formally installing you into the office of the presidency, I am pleased to present you with the University of North Dakota’s official Presidential Chain of Office,” Ryan said.

“The chain bears the names of all fully appointed UND presidents. The Presidential Medallion bears the university seal.”

After Kathy and Audrey Armacost draped the chain around the president’s neck, Ryan made the occasion official:

“By virtue of the authority granted to me by the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education, and in its name, I declare that you, Andrew Paul Armacost, having been duly chosen to be the 13th President of the University of North Dakota, are vested with all the authority, responsibilities and privileges of the office.”

‘Love your people’

Let’s conclude with one last story, this one from Matt Ternus, UND student body president.

When then-candidate Armacost visited campus in November 2019, he said his philosophy of leadership could be summed up in the following words: “Love your people,” Ternus recalled in his remarks at the inauguration.

“That philosophy was one of the biggest takeaways I had from the student forum,” Ternus said. And as Armacost’s few months as UND’s president now have shown, the philosophy still holds true, he said.

“Every student, every faculty member, and every member of the Grand Forks community that I’ve spoken to, they all know that President Armacost indeed does love his people,” he said.

“They feel it. We feel it, through his thoughtful words and actions, his servant leadership. …

“I’m excited for the years to come, and the progress that will be made under you, President Armacost. The student body is grateful and excited to have you here. Thank you.”

Editor’s note: President Armacost’s Inaugural Address, which he delivered at Monday’s ceremony, will be printed in full in an upcoming edition of UND Today.