The 23-member search committee formed to recommend the next president for the University of Nebraska holds its first meeting today. The NU Board of Regents will make the final decision, aiming to do so before the end of the year. It’s vital that NU select a leader with the right combination of talents — managerial, diplomatic, visionary — to maintain the university’s impressive upward trajectory.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of that decision. NU plays a central role in meeting the state’s workforce needs. It has great long-term impact on the course of agriculture and natural resources management in the state. Nebraska’s ability to nurture high-productivity tech startups, and build on current tech successes, will rely heavily on the university’s vision in those disciplines. And NU is showing notable vision in fields including medical niches, biomechanics, early childhood studies and outreach to rural communities.
Each of NU’s campuses can point to notable advances, thanks to hard work by faculty, staff, students and administration. The outgoing president, Hank Bounds, has provided dedicated leadership and spirited advocacy. NU needs to keep this positive momentum going. For this search, the regents have set out an appropriate set of criteria, saying the next president should:
» Demonstrate proven leadership.
» Prioritize academics.
» Promote solidarity among the four campuses, with the vision to lift up all parts of the state.
» Embrace strategic thinking.
» Work with state lawmakers of all philosophical stripes.
» Work successfully with the philanthropic community on fundraising.
» Understand athletics, with particular attention to NU traditions and needs.
Managerial ability is an all-important quality. The NU system enrolls 52,000 students and employs 16,000 faculty members and staffers. The budget totals $2.6 billion. Bounds has noted that, from the start of his presidency in 2015, he had to don a “fireman’s hat” and regularly address major fiscal challenges. His successor will likely shoulder similarly heavy duties on the budgetary front.
It’s unfortunate that in 2016, the Legislature and Gov. Pete Ricketts overturned the practice of making public the names of four finalists for NU president and campus chancellors. As a result, for this search NU is to disclose only the name of a single “priority candidate” 30 days before the regents vote on the hire. NU will hearings on the individual campuses during that period.
To promote buy-in, NU should make a special effort to encourage input from the public and the university community. A June listening session on the Lincoln campus was sparsely attended, for example. More public hearings lie ahead, set for Aug. 27-28 on the NU campuses. In addition, Nebraskans can submit their views to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week marked the 157th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Morrill Act — the landmark legislation that enabled the creation of land grant institutions such as the University of Nebraska. The search committee and regents should aim high as they interview candidates to continue that important tradition. Nebraska’s future depends on it.