You might call Ronnie D. Green, 57, the reluctant chancellor. Especially when he recounts how, during dinner at a Mexican restaurant, then-Chancellor Harvey Perlman first broached the subject of Green becoming the next chancellor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“I told Harvey, ‘you’re absolutely crazy,’ and then proceeded to tell him why I was not qualified,” said Green.
Many people disagreed and actively encouraged him to reconsider his position when the time came to apply. Four years later in May 2016, after a competitive interview process, the NU Board of Regents formally appointed Green as UNL’s 20th chancellor. Just six years earlier, he’d left his decade-long career in the private sector and returned to academia as vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“I was really humbled when they offered me the chancellor’s post,” Green said. “After the announcement and press conference, I was at dinner with my family. I remember wondering how does someone like me get to this position? It was unfathomable and felt like that for several weeks.”
As chancellor, Green is the CEO of the flagship of NU’s four-campus system. He reports to NU President Hank Bounds, though his constituents number 1.9 million Nebraskans. “I often describe my job as the chief dishwasher,” he said. “I have to make sure everything happens and gets done. Luckily, I have a very talented team.”
Little has surprised Green over the past two years, though he wouldn’t have predicted having so many major things happening at once. In a normal year, the budget and fiscal restraints of the state would be the big items.
“But there was also the change in Athletics Department leadership, the national conversation around quality in higher education, the political climate around freedom of speech … all condensed into a nine-month period,” he said. “I think we navigated it all OK in the end.”
The only son of hard-working Depression-era parents, Green grew up in the livestock/farming business in Virginia.
“My dad worked full-time at the GE factory during the day,” Green said. “When he came home at 3 o’clock, we all worked until the sun went down running the farm, every day.” Except for school, church, 4-H and FFA, there wasn’t much time for anything else.
Fortunately, Green received a scholarship to Virginia Tech (B.S., 1983) – he would be the first in the family to attend college. Inspired by the novels of James Herriot, he had intended to become a veterinarian. Through wise counsel and self-discernment, he chose cattle genetics. His department chair mentored Green into two of the top programs in the world – his masters at Colorado State (1985) and doctorate at UNL (1988) as the last student of the revered animal geneticist Gordon Dickerson.
UNL also brought him back in touch with Jane Pauley, the farmer’s daughter from Harvard, Nebraska, and UNL graduate he had first met in 1982 in an unlikely place – a feedlot at Michigan State. Jane, an agricultural economist and faculty member in Cooperative Extension, was assisting Nebraska farmers during the 1980s farm crisis. As soon as they became a couple, Green learned Jane was all about Nebraska.
“In the courtyard at First Plymouth after our wedding ceremony, she leaned over to me and said – and she denies it, but it’s an absolutely true story – ‘Oh, by the way, we will never live east of the Missouri River, and I would prefer to live right here.’”
Green intended a career as a university professor, but jobs in his field were few and far away. He landed a position at Texas Tech right out of graduate school. The Greens, with their first child on the way, left Lincoln for Lubbock in 1988; Jane was in tears all across Kansas. At TTU, Green completely rebuilt his program from scratch and learned he “liked to build things.”
Five years later, Colorado State University recruited Green, and by 1999 he was a tenured professor. “Honestly, CSU was the place for me to be, and I thought we’d be there until I retired.”
Enter a private sector start-up company.
As with every professional opportunity, family factored into the decision. The couple chose to give up the security CSU offered, and in 2000, Green headed to Kansas as the geneticist for Future Beef Operations (FBO), where he’d put into practice what he’d been teaching. FBO planned to develop branded beef products for a retailer in a way never done before. Their state-of-the-art facility opened in August 2001. The timing proved to be historically bad. FBO failed like many other companies did after Sept. 11. By August 2002, FBO was in Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Green was there to turn out the lights.
“That was my hard knocks MBA, and I’d go back and do it all again,” he said.
In 2003, the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked him to lead a national program in animal production and genetics, involving extensive travel. Jane suggested relocating the family back home to Sutton, Nebraska, instead of Washington D.C. Green agreed. Five years later, his career trajectory changed again when he joined Pfizer Animal Health as senior director of global technical services.
The future looks bright
Today, three of the Greens’ four children (Justin, Nate, Kelli and Regan) are UNL graduates. Regan starts her senior year at UNL this fall. Jane continues to be Green’s sounding board.
“She knows this state so well. She’s not a decision-maker,” he explained, “but she cares deeply about this place and making it better.” She also attends every Husker athletic event she can, earning her the nickname “Husker Jane.” The couple are still best friends with plenty to talk about, even after 32 years of marriage.
Leading into UNL’s 150th anniversary (N150) next year, Green anticipates record enrollment this fall – the third year in a row.
“We’re working on our in-state recruitment and getting better,” he said. “I can speak from experience with our own children. Our youngest was recruited differently than our oldest was in ’06. The university needs to be better about telling its own story, and N150 will help with that.”
Green worries about the transformation he thinks is coming to higher education. “I want us to lead that, not follow,” he stated. The trick will be figuring out what “that” is. However, he’s confident great things are ahead.