Walter “Ted” Carter feels for undergraduates who splash around in a sea of uncertainty.
As a student at the U.S. Naval Academy 40 years ago, he was among those who found college much tougher than high school.
“I wasn’t the best student,” Carter, 60, said Friday evening. “You all have access to my transcripts.”
His Navy transcript indicates that he graduated 733rd out of 969 at Navy after being near the top of his class in a rural Rhode Island high school.
Many years later, he became superintendent of the prestigious Naval Academy for five years, ending three months ago. And now, the retired vice admiral is the sole finalist to lead the University of Nebraska system, which has institutions in Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney and Curtis.
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Carter, a decorated fighter-jet aviator, will spend the next 30 days touring Nebraska and speaking to groups in what is basically a one-month review period. After that, the NU Board of Regents will probably select him as NU’s next president.
As an undergraduate, he said Friday, he was immature and more interested in playing hockey and dating the woman who would become his wife, Lynda.
He said he believes in second chances.
Once he dug in, Carter’s ability shone. He earned about a 3.5 grade-point average in the Navy’s nuclear power program, a sort of master’s program.
Dawn Mollenkopf, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and a member of the presidential search committee, said she liked the genuine qualities about him.
That Navy transcript “makes him feel for the students who struggle,” she said.
She also liked a description he gave of his student years at Navy — a great place to be from but not a great place to be at.
Ultimately, whether leading Navy or Nebraska, Carter said, “We want our students to be happy.” They are “customers” — human beings, he said, not “products” that merely beef up enrollment and budgets. Students are also the best ambassadors for a school, he said.
“I want to see young people come here,” he said. Not just Nebraskans, but out-of-staters and international students, he said.
Carter said that as Navy’s top administrator, he appreciated the value of the institution’s academic excellence center because it helped students learn how to study.
He said he also supported increasing mental health services at Navy for students who struggled emotionally.
The Navy’s Class of 2019, an NU press release said, hit a record 90% four-year graduation rate, which is splendid by any measure. Navy is academically selective and competitive. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, by comparison, had about a 43% four-year graduation rate as of last year.
Forbes magazine called the Naval Academy the nation’s best public university two years ago.
Carter said he also values diversity of all kinds, including ethnic, gender, religious and sexual orientation. Women make up 28% percent of the Naval Academy’s Class of 2023, and 40% of the student body are ethnic minorities. An NU press release said white men aren’t the majority at Navy for the first time in the academy’s 173 years.
He also said diversity should be evident in a university’s faculty, staff, leadership and coaching squads. The goal of diversity is “to make sure that we are the best that we can be,” he said.
Mollenkopf said that among other things, she and the search committee liked Carter’s blend of interest in details and the big picture. She also enjoyed his concept of leadership as “bottom-up, top-down and inside-out, as needed.”
He believes that leaders should use different styles, depending on the problem, rather than insisting that one approach be used all the time, she said.
Christine Copper, a Naval Academy faculty member since 1995, said that as the faculty representative to the NCAA, she traveled with Carter to many meetings and conferences.
He holds the American record for aircraft carrier plane landings (2,016), attended the Top Gun fighter pilot school, taught dozens of pilots to fly and commanded 20 ships and two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
But he didn’t lord his accomplishments over people, Copper said. He and his wife, who have two adult children, threw many functions and parties for faculty, students and others at their house, and never seemed ill at ease.
He is humble, funny and “just such a regular guy,” Copper said. He rarely needed notes for public speaking, she said, and he spoke extemporaneously Friday night.
Another friend of Carter’s, Bucknell University President John Bravman, said in an interview Friday that Carter’s “command authority comes not from his rank but his demeanor.” Bravman said Carter knows that “you lead not by giving orders, but you lead by commanding respect.”
One Internet video of Carter shows a cadet introducing him to an audience and telling them to rise. “Attention on deck!” the young man says.
Carter walks in. “OK, everybody,” he says. “Please sit down. That’s more than enough.”