Ronnie Green grew up modestly on his family’s beef and sharecropping farm near Fincastle, Virginia.
His family descended from the Scots-Irish immigrants who put down roots in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1700s. Fincastle itself was founded as an administrative seat for what was then the wide wilderness of colonial America.
Thomas Jefferson drew up the plans for its courthouse, and Lewis and Clark started west from there.
But for all its history and colonial tradition, Fincastle was just like many of the small towns in Nebraska, said Green, the next chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
It's the foundation for his career as a professor, industry researcher and administrator.
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Green joined 4-H in 1972, leading prized Angus heifers from his father’s herd in show rings throughout the area.
Fincastle was where Green joined the local chapter of the FFA, eventually becoming a state officer, and those experiences led him to pursue veterinary medicine at Virginia Tech.
His heart wasn’t in veterinary science, however, and Green changed course to focus on majors in agriculture and economics.
“My teacher, who was an animal scientist, told me what I really needed to look at was genetics, because it was what I really loved,” Green said in a wide-ranging interview last week.
Growing up on the farm, where his father managed a herd of 150 cattle before and after working his day job at the General Electric plant -- “(farming) was part time for my father but would have been full time for most other people" -- Green developed a passion for the beef industry.
He sought out the best animal geneticists in the country, boarding a plane for the first time in November 1982 and leaving the Appalachian Mountains for the Rockies and a master’s degree program at Colorado State.
Three years later, Green arrived in Lincoln to study under Gordon Dickerson, a 74-year-old who was nearing his 50th year at UNL.
Green was Dickerson’s final student before retirement.
Degrees in hand and new bride Jane at his side, Green moved on to teach at Texas Tech, where he worked for six years. Then it was back to Colorado State.
Life in Fort Collins with his wife and three young children was idyllic. He was teaching junior-level genetics courses in Colorado State’s animal science department, working with 150 students a semester.
Jack Whittier, the director of UNL’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center and a former faculty member at Colorado State, said Green was well-respected.
“Students felt he was a good teacher who really cared about them,” Whittier said.
But as Green earned tenure and a full professorship, other opportunities came along. A startup company, Future Beef, recruited Green to create a new model of source-verified beef products using the same practices he was teaching his students and researching in the lab.
“For me, it was a ‘practice what you preach’ kind of thing," Green said. "I was teaching all that stuff to kids, but I had never actually done it.”
Green joined Future Beef at the turn of the millennium, and while the company briefly got off the ground to work with 900 companies, a market shift in the wake of the 9/11 attacks eventually bankrupted the business.
Whittier, who followed Green to Future Beef, said the company had lofty goals but collapsed due to unforeseen and uncontrollable events.
Green moved on to new opportunities, first in practical research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and later in animal DNA research at Pfizer.
The global pharmaceutical company hired Green to assemble a team of the best animal geneticists, and Green recruited experts from Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Europe in his first year.
That’s when Harvey Perlman called.
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At a university where most recruiting news centers on Memorial Stadium, UNL's chancellor was working the phone. In ag circles, UNL needed to raise its stature and boost the profile of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Green was among those who felt IANR had become rudderless over the preceding decade, saying he didn’t like the direction it was taking.
He even admits to having a negative feelings about the university.
Green resisted Perlman’s offer, saying he didn’t feel comfortable leaving his new job at Pfizer, which allowed him to live in Nebraska and commute to where the job needed him to be.
Nor did he feel comfortable accepting a top administrator position, having never led a department or served in any academic leadership capacity.
Perlman persisted undeterred, telling Green: “I’m worried about whether you can do it; I’m not worried about if you have done it.”
Green applied, but he remembers leaving home for a four-day interview thinking he would be ready to “gracefully exit” within two hours.
Once he stepped on campus and started talking to faculty and staff, listening to their ideas and seeing their passion, everything changed.
“I knew within the first two hours I was supposed to be in this job.”
Although Green says history will judge his time at IANR, his six years leading the institute have been marked by immense growth. Enrollment in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, as well as the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, has grown to nearly 3,500 students -- record numbers.
The number of faculty teaching agriculture or natural resource-related subjects has grown by 30 percent, an additional 140 people, while annual research funding has topped $125 million, and private donations are closing in on $150 million.
IANR has also expanded physically, moving its Food Science and Technology Department to Nebraska Innovation Campus, UNL’s research park on the former site of State Fair Park, and its East Campus home is undergoing several transformations, including construction of a new Veterinary Diagnostic Center.
In his first six months, Green said he worked to understand the resources available to the institute and communicate them to 1,600 employees working in 15 departments and research and extension centers across the state.
Describing the world’s future challenges in granular detail, Green outlined how UNL and IANR could be the ones to solve them, noting the need was much bigger than what the university was then addressing.
“The strategic plan we had and areas of emphasis -- most of that was right,” Green said. “It wasn’t that you need to write a strategic plan; it was mostly in how you were going about doing it.”
He sought to bring in more “human talent” and change the morale of faculty by demonstrating what the opportunities were through transparent discussions of the budget and resources available.
“It was a lot of getting people to believe that they really needed to move to a higher level,” Green said.
In the end, it worked. Green said IANR emerged from a November 2010 retreat with “a much bolder vision:” Innovating Agriculture and Natural Resources to 2025.
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With Green in charge at IANR, farmers, ranchers and others across the state began buying into his vision for what UNL could offer in the world of agriculture.
Beyond a “very strong sense of purpose and direction,” York County extension educator Jenny Rees said Green sees the path to reaching a goal.
“He’s very good about seeing the good things of different people and how those good things can be used to build a solid team,” she said. “That’s what he’s done: Built really solid teams around him to work toward his vision.”
From his corn and soybean fields outside Rising City, Eugene Glock said he has watched Green’s leadership meld relations between East Campus and City Campus.
“People at (IANR) have not always been extremely anxious to cooperate with City Campus,” Glock said. “He’s been able to make that work. We’ve got more research funding and advances in technology because the ag work has not been limited to those at IANR.”
Barb Cooksley, a cattle rancher from Anselmo and president of the Nebraska Cattlemen, first witnessed Green’s passion and enthusiasm for agriculture and the livestock industry when he was a graduate student at UNL.
That enthusiasm intensified as he took over leadership of the university’s ag efforts, she added.
“He really wanted the University of Nebraska to be the lead university, he wanted to bring in the best instructors to teach the best, and he wanted to recruit more students for agriculture, because it is so much more than production,” she said.
Homer Buell, who worked with Green in the 1990s when he was a professor at Colorado State, said Green had long had a reputation as someone who could look into the future of agriculture and see how universities and producers should prepare to meet new challenges.
“He brought everything together.”
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Five years after setting a vision for IANR, Perlman again called on Green, this time to take on a broader leadership role within UNL.
With Ellen Weissinger leaving the senior vice chancellor for academic affairs’ office, Perlman tabbed Green to serve as the No. 2 administrator at UNL on an interim basis.
“Ronnie had done an extraordinary job both moving IANR forward but also engaging their programs with those on City Campus,” Perlman said in an email. “And due diligence showed he had a lot of support among City Campus faculty as well as IANR.”
The experience gained as UNL’s provost offered Green a glimpse at the culture within each of the university’s colleges, the dynamics between campuses and the issues that weren’t apparent when he was focused exclusively on IANR.
Although getting in the trenches as the provost proved a valuable experience, Green’s path to the chancellor’s office started well before that.
Green said Perlman encouraged him several years ago to really think about transitioning into a top leadership role at UNL.
“He said, ‘Ronnie, I really think you need to seriously consider if this is what you want to do next, because I think you should,’” Green said.
That conversation went much the same as the first time Perlman recruited him, Green said.
“I said it’s not going to happen; I don’t see myself in that role,” Green said.
Among his biggest hangups was leaving IANR, which was in a “huge growth mode” with several initiatives rolling out.
Green said the thought of managing the athletic department, for example, was intimidating. Putting his family under scrutiny for what happened on the playing field was daunting.
But as Green questioned his abilities and skill set, others from inside and outside the university offered encouragement.
“It was department heads talking to me and people I respected in the faculty saying ‘We really hope you look at this,’” he said.
Following long, hard discussions with his wife, Jane, Green decided to take a chance on becoming chancellor. For him, the pros outweighed the cons, and the chance “to do something really cool” as the leader of NU’s flagship university was too good to pass up.
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Those who have worked with Green over his 30-year career predict good times ahead.
Glock, the farmer from Rising City who served with Green on a search committee for executive director of NU's Water for Food Institute, believes Green understands the university on many levels.
During the search process, Glock said, Green wanted representation from other campuses across the university system.
“He recognizes the importance and the broad duty of the university to address all the problems of the state of Nebraska,” Glock said. “While ag to me is the most important, it’s very important all disciplines are addressing the problems, because ag can’t function without the rest of them.”
Sallie Atkins, a former executive director for the Nebraska Beef Council, said Green’s background in agriculture and in academia positions him for future success.
“He can walk the talk, he has such a passion for people and agriculture, and he has been exhibiting that same passion for the university and for Nebraska,” Atkins said. “I think he welcomes the challenge.”
Working with Green on the National Cattlemen’s Association in the 1990s, Atkins said she took note of his ability to relate within and outside of the industry, saying his ease around people and his command of “cowboy English” -- explaining difficult concepts in plain language -- will help Nebraskans rally around his vision for UNL.
Cooksley said industry leaders in Nebraska are sad to see Green leave IANR but believe his leadership qualities will serve the university and state well.
“We’re so thrilled in the agriculture community, and personally for him,” she said. "He has built a reputation for himself of integrity, hard work and thoroughness, and now he’s just playing on a bigger stage.”
Sue Sheridan, a professor of educational psychology at UNL who chaired the chancellor search committee, said Green’s connection to the university and the state as a whole impressed those involved in the search.
Perlman, who will hand over duties to Green on May 8 after 15 years as chancellor, said Green should be able to hit the ground running.
“He has been a key member of my team (and) is thus familiar with most of the issues and opportunities facing the university,” Perlman said.
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Green shares in the optimism about UNL’s future.
He believes UNL is set to grow to 35,000 students -- beyond the 30,000 target set by Perlman -- and double its research funding by 2025. One of his first jobs will be to find replacements for the two positions he currently occupies.
“I want to hire someone better than me,” he said of the IANR position. Green said he is adjusting the senior vice chancellor of academic affairs job description to bring it more in line with other Big Ten universities.
Green hopes to have new people in place by Jan. 1, so his leadership team can start to jell.
Athletics has an important seat at that table. As a graduate student in the 1980s, Green said, he was blown away by the passion of Husker fans, but the longer he has lived here, and after marrying into a family of die-hard fans, he gets it.
“I’ve gained a real appreciation for what athletics does here, both on the student-athlete side -- it’s phenomenal when you compare it to other programs around the country, what they do here for the student-athletes -- and on the competition side," he said. I’m a competitive person, so that’s not that hard."
Green said his approach will be similar to how he has approached other ventures: Be seen publicly, be positive, but ready to hold people accountable through the framework of what’s best for students and what’s best for the bottom line.
And Green said he wants to leverage existing partnerships with stakeholders, lawmakers and others, while developing new partnerships and healing perceived differences.
While he believes UNL is the flagship campus of NU capable “of raising all boats,” Green said a strained relationship between campuses in Lincoln and Omaha must be addressed to achieve the ambitious goals he and NU President Hank Bounds have set.
That’s possible, Green believes. He’s heard it from thousands of well-wishers -- including an overwhelming number of Nebraskans who now consider him a native son -- in the two weeks since Bounds introduced him as UNL’s next leader.
Green, who while holding onto his Shenandoah Valley accent, has cultivated an image as a Nebraska innovator, a thoughtful servant-leader who builds coalitions to work toward lofty ambitions.
“It’s been a little overwhelming, to be honest," he said. "But it’s been affirming because you hear how much people want this university to be successful."