UNL chancellor candidate previews research, economic development vision for Nebraska

Rodney Bennett will attend a variety of public forums throughout the week

By: - June 5, 2023 8:35 pm

Rodney Bennett, priority candidate for chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will attend a variety of public forums on campus throughout the week. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — During his first few years as an undergraduate student, Rodney Bennett, the now-priority candidate for chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, struggled.

As a young student at Middle Tennessee State University, Bennett began studying in the fall of 1984 and received a variety of grades in his first few years, including failing grades in intro to engineering, topics in biology, composition and mass media law. 

Eventually, he was placed on academic probation, but this didn’t deter Bennett. 

He turned his grades around in his final years, graduating in December 1990 with a degree in mass communication.

“Here you have an 18-year-old who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, who clearly is not on a good path, who did not have the support and mentorship that eventually he was able to get,” Bennett told the Nebraska Examiner on Monday. “I think it’s Exhibit A of how a young person who thinks that nothing could happen for them can turn their situation around.”

Bennett said his own transcripts speak to the value of education, and though a part of him looks back and says, “Gosh, why weren’t you more focused and more serious?” another part of him sees the path as a journey toward learning.

“Look how much you’ve grown,” he said.

Bennett went on to receive his master of education degree in August 1992 from Middle Tennessee State and a doctor of education degree from Tennessee State University in December 1996. For those degrees, according to his transcripts, he earned all A’s as a graduate student and A’s or B’s for his doctorate degree.

‘Rising tide, raising all the ships’

Monday marked the first of nearly 20 public forums Bennett will attend this week on campus, part of his public review period to become UNL’s 21st chancellor.

Bennett said if approved by the NU Board of Regents, he would work to reaffirm what it means for UNL to be Nebraska’s flagship university, continuing its land-grant mission.

“In my mind, I’ve never separated any part of what we do and what I’m responsible for,” Bennett said. “Each part builds on the next part, and it’s hard to be successful without the rising tide, raising all the ships in the harbor, as it were.”

University of Nebraska President Ted Carter announced Bennett on May 22 as the priority candidate to succeed UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green. Green plans to retire at the end of the month.

Per state law, Bennett is undergoing a 30-day review period, at the conclusion of which Carter could bring Bennett’s candidacy for approval at the June 22 NU Board of Regents meeting.

Bennett would be the first person of color to serve as chancellor of Nebraska’s largest university.

‘Translational science’

On Monday, Bennett described to a group of stakeholders focused on research and economic development how a turn toward “translational science,” or transferability, could help UNL stand out and attract students.

Bob Wilhelm, vice chancellor for research and economic development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, attends a public forum for the chancellor priority candidate on Monday, June 5, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Some research, he said, has gotten away from this notion and missed the “why” of the work. Instead, he sees a world where the research done at UNL has direct impacts on the community.

“I think philosophically for the University of Nebraska going forward, we have to ask ourselves, ‘For what purpose are we doing this research?’” Bennett said.

He pointed to a Heartland Forward publication that outlined top universities creating new realms for discovery and knowledge; it’s a list Bennett wants to see UNL on.

One attendee from the UNL department of physics, professor Shireen Adenwalla, asked whether this transferability could stand in the way of speculative or high-risk research.

“In physics, a lot of the research we do may or may not leave translational benefits, and we may not know for 100 years,” Adenwalla said. “So how do you balance that? Where is the space for something that is not directly applicable?”

Adenwalla pointed to the 70th anniversary of the transistor in December as an example, as well as the 100th anniversary of quantum mechanics in 2025. 

Both have wide-ranging implications that were tapped into years after discovery.

Rodney Bennett, priority candidate for chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, answers a question during a public forum on Monday, June 5, 2023, in LIncoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Bennett said he has a “deep appreciation” that research may not be finalized or known in the semester it’s finalized or conducted. He also said he does not see a difference between speculative or high-risk research and translational products.

“I think it’s the nature of the work that we do that there’s not a definitive end date for which a result has to be known,” he responded.

Bennett said he has been comfortable justifying grants to the Mississippi Legislature or Mississippi Governor’s Office, which would continue in Nebraska. 

Interdisciplinary focus

Bennett said that during his time at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he spent nearly 10 years as its president, he dealt only with budget cuts, never with increased university funding. However, he said, the university still thrived.

He said UNL could identify its goals and priorities and make a plan to do so, such as with the “Grand Challenges” found in UNL’s N2025 Strategic Plan

These challenges are a group of seven thematic areas that include health equity, climate resilience, early childhood education and development, sustainable food and water security, science and technology literacy for society, quantum science and engineering and anti-racism and racial equity.

Bennett said he is a “big fan” of the grand challenges, which could be a “great conduit” for future opportunities.

“I come here, on a day like today, with a strong commitment and evidence that supports a commitment to interdisciplinary activities, and I think it will be the way of the future for us, most certainly,” Bennett said.

‘Everything that we do matters’

During his time as Southern Mississippi president, Bennett said he was accustomed to being at the state capitol building about three days a week during the legislative session. He also spent two to three days every quarter in Washington, D.C. and was regularly on the road with alumni and donors or with the university’s foundation, “doing the things that only the chancellor can do.”

His role would be a facilitator, advocate and cheerleader, Bennett told the Examiner, maximizing students’ Nebraska experiences so they are prepared for the next 30 to 40 years of their work life.

“I think that we have an opportunity to really position ourselves in ways that we had never thought about previously,” Bennett said.

It’s not all about national rankings, Bennett said, but “we don’t have the luxury to not be concerned” about where UNL stands in relation to Big Ten and other institutions.

Bennett said he is most looking forward to getting started, “helping put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

“My work will be as much about the research piece of it as it is about every aspect of the university of trying to navigate us through some very challenging times,” Bennett said during the forum. “We would be irresponsible, in my opinion, to only focus on one aspect.

“Every touchpoint matters, everything that we do matters, and the research and student success in my mind are equally important to the future.”


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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling recently graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a double major in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. He reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan before joining the Nebraska Examiner staff as an intern.