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NU committee shares vision for next president as summer search begins

NU committee shares vision for next president as summer search begins


The next president of the University of Nebraska system must be someone for everyone, according to the committee charged with forwarding potential candidates on to the Board of Regents later this year.

In a wide-ranging and sometimes contentious discussion about the position and the search process on Tuesday, members of the 23-person committee offered their views on what NU's eighth president should look like.

A university president must be a visionary and a proven leader, said JoAnn Martin, CEO of Ameritas, but have the people skills and emotional quotient to engage with first-generation college students as well as big-money donors.

They must understand and embrace Nebraska’s culture without being afraid to disrupt the status quo or revamp what higher education looks like in the state, said Tonn Ostergard, chairman and CEO of Crete Carrier.

Stancia Jenkins, an assistant vice president for diversity, access and inclusion at NU, said the president should keep in mind the growing diversity of the state and its public university system, and how the two connect.

Just as important is using the president’s office to draw attention to NU’s position as a global leader in higher education, said Kwame Dawes, a professor of English at UNL, while former Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood said the president should renew efforts to broaden NU's impact within the state.

Other committee members said NU needs to be recognized for the academic, cultural and economic engine that it is, with committee members indicating that the president should be agile enough to work with local, state and federal officials of varying political stripes.

And while the NU president should be -- like many Nebraskans -- a fan of college sports, appreciating their ability to connect thousands to the university, they should also leave the day-to-day workings of those departments to the chancellors and athletic directors.

Taking notes on the brainstorming at Nebraska Innovation Campus was Roderick McDavis of AGB Search, the lead consultant on NU’s quest to replace Hank Bounds, who will leave the president's office next month.

Once it finishes the leadership profile -- a document based upon the conversations between search consultants and several stakeholder groups -- McDavis said the work of recruiting applicants will begin, continuing into early fall.

There won’t be any restrictions in place in order to “keep the funnel as wide open as we can,” McDavis said, indicating the search firm recruited leaders in higher education, business executives and former elected officials during a recent search at the University of Minnesota.

“We’ve found we do better without restrictions in place,” McDavis said.

Bruce Grewcock, the chairman and CEO of Kiewit Corp., encouraged AGB Search to use that method to look at what he called “unusual suspects,” nontraditional candidates who understand the challenges facing higher education and are willing to act as an agent of change.

The committee, led by Regent Jim Pillen of Columbus, will then reconvene to sift through up to 60 candidates identified by AGB Search to fulfill their charge: “Recommending -- unranked -- semifinal candidates to the Board of Regents.”

“We all need to set aside our parochial concerns and act in the best interest of the University of Nebraska,” Pillen said, adding the committee would try to reach a consensus on three or four semifinal candidates to forward onto regents for interviews, with a lone "priority candidate" being named potentially by the end of the year.

While the leadership profile will be instrumental in outlining the expectations of a new president, as well as preparing NU's 52,000 students and 14,000 employees for new leadership, it's likely not all potential candidates will be interested in the job.

NU could offer candidates between $800,000 and $1.2 million in total compensation, which along with base salary and health insurance benefits could mean a house, vehicle, deferred compensation package and performance bonuses through a combination of public and private funds.

Asked by Flood if paying the market rate would net NU the best leader it could find, Pillen answered affirmatively.

“The reality is, and I think I can speak on behalf of our board, our job is to make the best decision for the university and the state,” he said. “This isn’t a grocery store, we don’t go to buy the most and the best for the least. We’re not going to lose a candidate, if that’s what it’s going to take.”

Other highlights:

* According to Pillen: “If you’re on this committee, you’re not a candidate.” That means Dr. Jeff Gold, chancellor of both the University of Nebraska Medical Center and University of Nebraska at Omaha, will not be eligible.

* Launching a search for a new president during the summer break was not ideal, as it led to a lack of participation in some of the forums hosted for students, faculty and others last month, but McDavis said forging ahead in the summer will put NU out in front of other institutions like the University of Maryland system that will launch searches later this year.

* McDavis said the four-person team AGB Search has assembled to work with NU is the largest the firm has put together for a university leadership search.

* Pillen, answering a question by Dawes, said regents were willing to search as long as necessary to find a new leader. "Failure is not an option," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


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