University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds admitted Monday that the grind of his job played a role in his decision to step down after four years in the position.
Bounds announced his decision to Varner Hall staffers in Lincoln and sent the university community a letter by email Monday about his decision.
“I don’t know if I’m burned out, but I’m tired,” Bounds said in a telephone interview. He said he would leave the NU system’s presidency, probably in August, and return to the South.
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Jobs like the presidency of NU “are 60 to 80 hours every week,” he said. “It’s hard to work that many hours a week and be a good dad at the same time.”
His tenure has been marked by the battle to avoid state funding cuts, which came three times in his presidency. Bounds was known for preparing exhaustively to meet with the Legislature’s Appropriation Committee, as well as with other senators and the governor. He has pressed state leaders on the urgency of funding NU well because of its role in developing the state’s workforce, economy and jobs.
Bounds formed “budget response teams” in the NU system to find efficiencies and discovered more than $20 million worth, the university has said.
NU Regent Howard Hawks of Omaha said the university was lucky to have him, but Hawks was frank about the demands on Bounds.
“Everybody knows it’s a tough job when you’re not getting the funds you need to do it the way you want to,” Hawks said. “This has really been a wear-and-tear job for all four years that he’s been here.”
Bounds said his relationships with state senators and Gov. Pete Ricketts are good. But his kind of job, he said, has only become tougher with more state funding constraints and harsh competition with other institutions for enrollment growth. The number of college-age Nebraskans is for the most part flat, he said.
The NU system includes institutions in Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney and Curtis, with satellite campuses and programs elsewhere in the state as well.
“This has been the experience of a lifetime,” Bounds said Monday. “It’s also been very demanding.”
He said he and his wife, Susie, have family in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia. He has two children, a daughter who is a freshman in high school and a son who will graduate from high school this spring.
“I don’t know that they like one place better than the other,” he said of his family, comparing Nebraska to the South.
Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer of Norfolk said he was sorry that Bounds was leaving but said he understood his desire to have more time with his family.
“That’s a 24/7 job,” Scheer said. “I expect very rarely does he get to enjoy a meal with his family.”
State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln said that the state’s budget troubles led to cuts at the university and that had to be hard on Bounds.
“I can only assume that would be frustrating,” Wishart said. “I thought he was very bright and had big dreams for the university.”
Ricketts said in a statement, in part: “During his tenure, the University has grown its enrollment, expanded research opportunities and cemented its reputation as a world leader in medical research.”
Bounds, 51, came to NU in 2015 after serving as commissioner of higher education at the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning. That was one stop in a career in public education, starting as a teacher and working his way up from high school principal to state superintendent.
Regents Chairman Tim Clare of Lincoln said the regents will meet soon to determine the appropriate path as the board seeks a new president.
“He was a tireless leader who always put the university’s interests first,” Clare said.
Bounds made some key moves during his time at Nebraska.
In 2016, Bounds named Ronnie Green UNL’s chancellor. While looking for a replacement for retiring UNO Chancellor John Christensen in 2017, Bounds put the search on hold and inserted University of Nebraska Medical Center Chancellor Jeffrey Gold as UNO’s interim chancellor.
Gold also remained UNMC’s chancellor.
“I know he’s worked really hard to sustain a positive relationship with the Legislature,” Gold said Monday. “We’ve been going through some very difficult budget times.”
In June, Bounds received a contract extension through mid-2023 with a salary of $540,000 a year, no raise from previous years.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green issued a statement praising Bounds as “a strong and dedicated leader for the University of Nebraska during some challenging times.”
“He has been a tireless advocate for the NU system in the statehouse and across the state,” Green said.
University of Nebraska at Kearney Chancellor Doug Kristensen also issued a statement, saying “UNK has lost a great friend. ... I know of no other president who’s been as committed to our students and to Kearney as Hank.”
UNL Student Regent Hunter Traynor said in an interview that it’s “been clear to me just how accessible President Bounds has been. It’s evident to me that students have been his foremost concern.”
Bounds said he would “never say never” to the possibility of taking a similar job in the future, “but that’s not in the plans right now.”
He envisioned himself teaching at the college level and said he already has a plan as to where he’s going. He declined to describe that plan but said it would come out in the months ahead.
World-Herald staff writers Henry Cordes, Paul Hammel and Alli Davis contributed to this report.
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