When Hank Bounds left his native Mississippi to lead the University of Nebraska system in 2015, it’s unlikely he foresaw the challenges that would mark his tenure.
Three rounds of budget cuts in two years that required academic and athletic programs alike to be axed. A free-speech controversy in Lincoln that generated national attention. A struggle to find a new chancellor for the Omaha campus. A Husker football program in free fall.
Yet, through it all, the Journal Star editorial board can unequivocally say that Bounds was the president NU needed to weather these choppy seas. His departure in August from the university, which he announced Monday, will be a loss for higher education in Nebraska.
Perhaps Board of Regents Chairman Tim Clare sums it up best: "Hank was the right person, at the right time, for our university, and we will forever be indebted for his great work.”
If you look at the numbers, Bounds oversaw the NU system at a time it attained records for total enrollment and graduation rate.
As Nebraska continues to grapple with shortages of available workers in particular fields and brain drain, keeping up the number of students enrolled and diplomas awarded is of the utmost importance. Under his leadership, a variety of new scholarship and public-private partnerships became realities.
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Though his lobbying for state appropriations wasn’t always successful, he made logical, data-driven arguments to prove NU’s value to the state. When he was placed in the unenviable position of having to make tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts, he succeeded in keeping the majority of the pain away from the university’s core academic mission.
And Bounds saw the big picture of athletic programs serving as the proverbial front door to the school, with the value and student population sports can bring. The former graduate assistant at the University of Southern Mississippi, who once considered becoming a football coach, was heavily involved in the process that brought Scott Frost back to coach at Nebraska and frequently visited athletic recruits touring Lincoln.
Beyond these results, much of our appreciation for Bounds stems from his leadership style – one of level-headedness and civility at a time when those traits are in short supply. In his dealings with the Journal Star editorial board, he was forthcoming and fair, and he understood the importance of advancing the conversation in the public forum.
Those traits were always on display as Bounds tackled the topics that have defined his tenure as NU’s seventh president.
As he begins a new professional chapter and moves to be closer to his family, he leaves behind a legacy of success – not to mention big shoes for his successor to fill. Nebraska has been fortunate to have benefited from his leadership the last four years.