Rodney Bennett, priority candidate for chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, addresses the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion on Tuesday, June 6, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Rodney Bennett, the priority candidate for chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is no stranger to controversy related to diversity, equity and inclusion.
On Oct. 28, 2015, the former president of the University of Southern Mississippi ordered the state flag to be taken down on USM campuses. At the time, the flag contained the Confederate battle emblem.
Bennett announced in an email that day he was choosing to instead raise American flags on Southern Miss flagpoles “to remind the University Community of what unites us.”
“While I love the state of Mississippi, there is passionate disagreement about the current state flag on our campuses and in our communities,” Bennett said in the 2015 email announcing his decision. “I am looking forward to a time when this debate is resolved and USM raises a state flag that unites us.”
Bennett told attendees of a public forum Tuesday in Lincoln that people regularly protested on USM’s campus for five years as the Mississippi Legislature decided what to do next with the flag.
Some protesters called for Bennett’s removal because of his decision, while others requested that state funds be withheld from the university, Bennett recalled.
However, Bennett said, he and others did not get weary, moving for change in one of the nation’s most conservative states.
“I think that there are opportunities if we stay consistent, if we develop the right relationships on campus and across the state, if we sort of rally our allies and we’re all in alignment,” Bennett said Tuesday. “There are opportunities to really make significant changes even when it doesn’t look like changes can be made.”
National political landscape
With national conversations under way around the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion, Tuesday’s forum featured stakeholders from UNL’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the three chancellors commissions related to diversity. These are on the status of people of color, women, and gender and sexual identities.
University of Nebraska President Ted Carter announced Bennett on May 22 as the candidate to succeed UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green. Green plans to retire at the end of the month.
State law requires a 30-day public review period, allowing Carter to bring Bennett’s appointment to the NU Board of Regents for approval as early as its June 22 meeting, if deemed appropriate.
Bennett would be the first person of color in the UNL chancellor position.
Much of Tuesday’s session focused on how Bennett would work with those in the audience and on campus generally to create a more welcoming environment, including in the recruitment and retention of diverse voices.
Bennett told the crowd he currently resides in Florida, a state that has banned public colleges and universities from spending money on diversity, equity and inclusion.
He said he has watched those proposals closely and is “trying to genuinely understand” where questions around diversity, equity and inclusion are coming from.
However, Bennett said, he built relationships with leaders in Mississippi so he could be at the table to explain the work and would do so in Nebraska, too.
“If we are doing our jobs as educators, I think we have an obligation to put in front of [students] many scenarios for which they may not like or may not feel comfortable or may not be as familiar with so that they can begin to become more familiar with and embrace what they’re likely to face in the workplace and as they go live their lives, both locally and abroad,” Bennett said.
“I’m on board with doing all that I can do as chancellor of the university to take forward the narrative and the message of, ‘This is something that we absolutely need to be committed to.’”
UNL diversity, equity and inclusion landscape
NU has been no stranger to controversies around diversity, equity and inclusion in the past few years, such as efforts by then-Regent Jim Pillen (now governor) that would have prohibited the imposition of critical race theory on NU’s campuses. The resolution failed on a 5-3 vote.
Under Chancellor Green’s leadership, campus leaders formed a coalition — the “Journey for Anti-Racism and Racial Equity” — after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Green along with Marco Barker, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, unveiled the “Commitment to Action Toward Its Journey” in November 2021.
Bennett said he has a “high level” understanding of these past events.
“I think it’s probably when I first started thinking about Nebraska and keeping up loosely with what was going on out here as major institutions across the country were having conversations and doing policy implementations and the like,” Bennett told the Examiner.
Bennett said he has not yet had enough time to sort through everything and say what would happen with past initiatives, which could include some modifications or be brand-new.
“I don’t know that one of our country’s most important universities cannot have something that they’re looking to or relying upon or interested in in terms of the way forward,” Bennett said.
Bennett said Mississippi and Nebraska have also had a connection: Former NU President Hank Bounds, when serving as Mississippi’s commissioner of higher education, hired Bennett in 2013 for the USM presidency.
In 2016, Bennett gave the keynote address for Bounds’ official installation as NU president.
“We’ve just had this relationship, between me and Nebraska, for several years, and it just almost makes sense that I would apply to be chancellor here,” Bennett said.
Taking a stand
One question Tuesday revolved around legislation in Nebraska and nationwide related to the LGBTQ community and transgender people in particular.
Bennett said that while he did not follow the Nebraska Legislature’s 2023 session, where lawmakers passed a bill limiting gender-affirming care for minors, anything that threatens a member of the UNL community’s safety or health is troublesome.
“I take a stand on anything that prevents a student from earning their degree from the University of Nebraska in four years,” Bennett said. “I’m now thinking about it differently because it affects their ability to complete the process that they came here to complete.”
This, he added, may not have anything to do with legislation or policies.
Charlie Foster, special assistant to the vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, told the Nebraska Examiner after the event that Bennett has piqued her curiosity about what a Chancellor Bennett could mean.
“We’ve lived under the N2025 [Strategic Plan] for the past few years,” Foster said. “So I’m anxious for someone else to apply policy to the work that we do.”
The N2025 Strategic Plan is a set of goals the UNL community outlined it would wish to achieve by 2025. It includes a list of seven grand challenges, including anti-racism and racial equity.
‘Move the needle forward’
Lawrence Chatters, the executive associate athletic director for strategic initiatives in Husker Athletics, described to Bennett how his daughter will be starting at UNL in the fall.
Chatters said his daughter grew up in a very non-diverse space, never able to live in a community where there was a significant amount of diversity leading to issues while in school.
Chatters asked whether Bennett would be sure to use his voice and show others that the “buck stops with you,” not allowing individuals to create an environment where Chatters’ daughter would not be welcomed.
“My only desire of you as a parent, and also as a person that does work within the DEI space and tries to really champion people from marginalized backgrounds, is to be a person who allows for everyone on this campus to feel safe and they have the protection of you, first and foremost,” Chatters asked of Bennett.
Bennett committed to using his voice, noting he has been the “most frustrated” when someone has access and does not speak up.
“I will always use the position of chancellor to move the needle forward,” Bennett responded. “As you and others have talked about today, I’ll never sit silent, sit on my hands and not speak up.”
Chatters told the Nebraska Examiner that Bennett gave an intentional answer he would expect from someone seeking the UNL chancellor position.
“I’m happy that we have someone who is willing to sit at those tables and speak up when the marginalized are being treated improperly,” Chatters said, noting he felt the same way about Green.
Bennett also committed to forum attendees that, if approved, he would get to work addressing challenges right away.
“I certainly do not want to use the entire fall semester or next school year in more study mode as opposed to sort of where-are-we mode and let’s start developing a plan to address some of these lingering concerns,” Bennett said.
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