OMAHA — In one of his final duties as president of the University of Nebraska, J.B. Milliken helped to dedicate a building designed to be at the intersection of student engagement and private enterprise.

The Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center, built in the heart of the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus, in many ways exemplifies what has driven Milliken as the leader of the state’s public university system — facilitating the marriage of the university's mission to the interests of all Nebraskans.

“We want to connect the aspirations, the ambitions of the state and the university to assure they are aligned,” Milliken said in a recent interview. “Universities serve the states, and states invest in the universities they think are doing great things for the state.”

After a decade of fusing the university’s goals to Nebraska's future, Milliken will step down as president on Friday before moving on to become chancellor of the City University of New York next month.

For Milliken, the move is a continuation of the “intellectual awakening” he underwent as a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and which led him from Wall Street back to the halls of academia.

Being a part of public institutions capable of affecting great change on individuals and society, as well as being surrounded by talented faculty, staff and administrators has a certain gravity Milliken couldn't resist, even when friends and family insisted the move from practicing attorney to university counsel was an "unusual" one.

“The polling shows that 70 percent of Americans believe that the goal of college is to prepare students for a job,” Milliken said. “I think that’s right, I’m just not sure it’s the first job.”

From 1988 to 1998, Milliken worked under NU presidents Ronald Roskens, Martin Massengale and L. Dennis Smith. He moved on to become the University of North Carolina’s vice president for external affairs under President Molly Corbett Broad, a position he held until returning to NU as president in 2004.

Each of the leaders who Milliken worked for taught him “a great deal” about how a university should operate to serve the broader interest, which starts with making college more accessible, he said.

“I have always been a big believer that affordable access is priority number one of public universities,” Milliken said.

When he returned to Varner Hall, the university system's home base on UNL's East Campus, NU was coming off four years of double-digit tuition increases totaling 47 percent. Milliken has helped to slow the rate of tuition increases over the last decade to an average of 4.2 percent.

For this year and next, the NU Board of Regents has a tuition freeze in place in hopes of attracting more students to the system's four campuses.

According to NU, annual tuition at the university’s flagship Lincoln campus remains $2,000 less than the average of its peer group, and is nearly $4,000 less than the average of all Big Ten Conference schools. Tuition rates for NU campuses in Omaha and Kearney remain lower than the average of their peer institutions.

Nebraskans have embraced the benefits of higher education through the P-16 Initiative, chaired by Gov. Dave Heineman, to help increase enrollment and graduation rates at Nebraska’s two-year and four-year colleges and to keep more of those graduates in the state, Milliken said.

Since the P-16 Initiative began, Nebraska has risen from 17th to seventh in high school graduates attending college. A recently released Lumina Foundation policy brief said 43 percent of Nebraska’s working population has at least an associate’s degree, compared with 40.5 percent in 2008.

When he began his tenure, Milliken said the conversation among policymakers and university officials centered on affordability and student debt. Since then, the conversation has broadened to include success rates and timely graduation.

“I can’t explain why it wasn’t the same discussion a decade ago, but the shift has been very important,” he said, adding NU has positioned itself to answer some of the tough questions surrounding the future of higher education in the U.S.

* Are costs getting out of control?

* Is student debt too high?

* Is college worth it?

“I think we have good answers for all of those questions at the University of Nebraska,” Milliken said.

Keeping the costs of college affordable and increasing NU’s enrollment to its highest point in decades — at 50,405 students — is only part of the equation of determining a university’s success, Milliken said.

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Measuring NU’s success — and the state's own success — involves gauging the impact both have on one another in their symbiotic relationship.

Under Milliken’s direction, NU launched initiatives like the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, the Roger B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute, the Rural Futures Institute, the Buffett Early Childhood Center, Nebraska Innovation Campus and the National Strategic Research Institute in response to issues important to the state’s citizens.

Nebraskans responded with their support during the “Campaign for Nebraska,” which began in 2009.

“We were skeptical we could raise $1.2 billion,” Milliken said. "And then we were hit by the hardest economy in many decades, and we even asked the question if we should put the campaign on hold."

NU’s fundraising consultant said other universities across the country had decided to delay their efforts during the recession, but the campaign’s executive committee, made up of Nebraskans, decided to push forward.

The campaign is now on the cusp of raising 50 percent more than its original goal, with $1.7 billion pledged.

Fundraising efforts continue to bring in record donations. The University of Nebraska Foundation reported a record year in 2013 with more than $237 million received.

Milliken said the confidence that the state's citizens, businessmen and philanthropists have shown is a credit to the faculty, staff and others with their hands in the day-to-day operations of the university.

“A university president can help shape a strategy, can help bring energy around a strategy, can help attract resources publicly and privately and eliminate some of the friction to get things accomplished,” Milliken said. “But at the end of the day, the success of all these programs depends on the faculty at the university and the leadership directly involved in it.”

After the last of the well-wishes and the goodbyes this week, Milliken will depart for New York optimistic about the future of his alma mater.

Milliken said he believes NU will continue in its mission of becoming “the best public university” in the country with the entire state’s help.

“I think it’s enormously important that the state and its leaders have confidence in the university that we can do what we say we’re going to do, and I think the University of Nebraska will continue to demonstrate that in areas important to Nebraskans.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com. On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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