Varner Hall

Varner Hall in Lincoln houses the University of Nebraska central administration offices and is the usual meeting site for the Board of Regents. 

At first, Nebraskans may have rubbed their eyes after seeing the dollar figure.

Between $800,000 and $1.2 million in total annual compensation for the next University of Nebraska president? Yes, you saw that correctly.

Let us pose a follow-up question, then: Would that pay range seem feasible for the CEO of a $4.5 billion company? With NU having that large of an economic impact on the state annually, the comparison makes sense.

Though it represents a significant raise over the compensation package for outgoing NU President Hank Bounds, that dollar figure – which would place the job among the nation’s highest for university leaders – is entirely justifiable. If Nebraskans want their university to be as successful as it can be, they must be willing to pony up to land a top-tier leader.

In Bounds, NU landed an absolute bargain. During his four years leading the university system, he performed admirably in challenging times – and well above his pay grade as the 97th-highest-paid college president in total compensation, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Over the span of just six years, the NU job had fallen to that level from 34th place, which is where J.B. Milliken ranked in 2012, his final year as university president.

To ensure NU builds upon its prestige and results, the university’s next chief must be paid at a level commensurate with the results state leaders hope to achieve.

NU Board of Regents Chairman Tim Clare says it best: “I don’t want to sound like we’re being flippant with money. It’s imperative we illustrate good stewardship of taxpayer dollars from the state. But I think if we want to be competitive, to provide the best education for our students and have the best university for our state, you’ve got to spend money to attract good talent.”

Because this job affects all Nebraskans – and will be paid for by them, too – transparency is a must, from the hunt to the hire. Changes in 2016 to state law requiring just one priority candidate to be publicly identified have clouded the public’s view of the process, so Nebraskans deserve a better window into this process, especially in regards to how and how many taxpayer, tuition and foundation dollars are used.

Backers said the move was necessary to lure the best candidates, who might not want their current employer to know they were looking for a new job. But, at a certain point, a high salary and a university system willing to invest in strong leadership ought to be enough incentive to apply, without the additional enticement of anonymity. Transparency should be included in the price tag.

The first search under those new rules, for a chancellor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, cost $122,000 without yielding a single candidate before University of Nebraska Medical Center Chancellor Dr. Jeff Gold assumed the role in addition to his regular duties.

Nebraska can’t endure a similar struggle this time around.

Hiring a capable leader for the university system, Nebraska’s best investment in itself and its future, will demand more money and transparency than the previous search. For a position of this magnitude, the added expense will be worthwhile.

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