Retiring UNL chancellor reflects on seven years of challenges and opportunities
Chancellor Ronnie Green, a farm boy from the Blue Ridge Mountains, led UNL through some of its greatest challenges in recent years, much under the shadow of COVID-19
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green will retire from his role on June 30 after seven years in the role. He poses for a portrait in the chancellor’s conference room on Monday, June 26, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green, a farm boy from the Blue Ridge Mountains, departs this week after seven years in his leadership role.
Green came to UNL first in 1985 for a doctorate education in animal breeding and genetics because Nebraska is an international leader in agricultural research. He completed the degree jointly at the U.S. Department of Agriculture U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in 1988.
Green said he fell in love with the place and with his future wife — known campus-wide as “Husker Jane” — and the rest, he said, is “history, as they say.”
He returned in 2010 to lead the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and in 2015 he became UNL’s chief academic officer, just one step below the chancellor.
“Just good fortune,” Green said of his path to UNL chancellor in May 2016. “I don’t know how else I would describe it because it was certainly not something that I planned to do or that I plotted or planned.”
Rodney Bennett, the former president of the University of Southern Mississippi, has been tapped as UNL’s 21st chancellor and will begin in July.
‘Decades of challenge’
As Green retires June 30, he leaves a legacy of confronting some of UNL’s greatest challenges while also joining with other university leaders to devise long-term plans for the campus.
The challenges in recent years, as well as opportunities, included UNL’s 150th anniversary, the COVID-19 pandemic, a campus commitment to anti-racist education and inclusive excellence and addressing sexual and power-based violence.
“There are periods of decades that kind of stand out as decades of challenge, and this has been one of those decades,” Green said this week.
Green said he is most proud during his time as chancellor of a record number of graduates, seeing nearly 40,000 students graduate in seven years.
“At a time when it defied the odds to do that,” Green noted.
N2025 Strategic Plan
In 2018, campus leaders joined with partners off campus to put together a vision for where UNL could be after its first 150 years in 2019.
Much of those two years were spent celebrating the campus, with Green announcing UNL’s N2025 Strategic Plan in February 2020, weeks before COVID-19 would become a new focus.
The long-term plan set out an aspirational view for where UNL could be by 2025, which Green said has been going well with guiding principles for UNL to be the very best place to be a student.
“Not just in the Big Ten but anywhere,” he said.
As part of the plan, all students before they graduate will have at least one experiential learning opportunity as well as research and global experiences.
Green notes that UNL is a “little slower on track” for the N2025 plan’s research components, mostly due to COVID-19, though he noted that campus diversity has doubled during his time as chancellor and said the campus culture has changed for the better.
The plan put into effect the phrase “every person and every interaction matters,” which Green said has made a difference for all.
“I hope that will be an enduring legacy of the N2025 plan as well,” Green said.
‘This is all gonna be OK’
Green recalls having to transition soon after to address the growing threat of the coronavirus that few understood in late February and early March 2020.
Partly with the help of UNL’s sister campus — the University of Nebraska Medical Center — University of Nebraska leaders quickly decided a path forward: UNL would send students home for the rest of the semester in spring 2021 and extend spring break by one week so the campus community could prepare.
Green remembers sitting around the table in the conference room just off his office in early March 2020 alongside many campus leaders and then-interim Executive Vice Chancellor Richard Moberly, who had temporarily stepped away as dean of the Nebraska College of Law.
It was days before announcing the campus-wide shutdown, and Green recalls leaning over to Moberly and saying, “This is all gonna be OK, because I just know I’m meant to be here right now.”
The shutdown didn’t last long: Green and NU President Ted Carter announced that summer they would reopen the campus by fall 2021, ahead of many other institutions.
Journey to anti-racism
The challenges under the shadow of COVID-19 continued during Green’s time as chancellor, including after the national outcry following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
“Now must be different,” Green wrote on June 5, 2020. “This cannot be another moment where we collectively rage at injustice, acknowledge pain and then take no meaningful action. We must take real steps to address racial inequities and a history of exclusion.”
Green formed the UNL Journey for Anti-Racism and Racial Equity, a group of campus leaders, to determine steps forward. The group advised Green and Marco Barker, UNL’s vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion.
Green hired Barker for the new vice chancellor role in 2018 to lead diversity and inclusion efforts. Anti-racism and racial equity are also part of UNL’s “grand challenges,” seven themes Green announced as part of the N2025 Strategic Plan.
In November 2021, Green and Barker unveiled the “UNL Commitment to Action Toward Its Journey.”
The commitment, an extension of the original announcement, stated it would bridge anti-racism principles to the N2025 plan.
These efforts did not go unnoticed on campus or in Nebraska’s political arena, with some faculty, staff and students publicly praising the initiatives while some elected officials called for its end.
Then-University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen — now governor — criticized Green for the commitment. Months earlier, Pillen brought a resolution to ban the imposition of critical race theory on NU campuses. It failed on a 5-3 vote.
Green did not dive into the specifics of these controversies during an interview this week but emphasized that diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are needed.
“I’m immensely proud of that and immensely proud that it is a priority for us and hope that it will continue,” Green said.
Bennett, the incoming UNL chancellor, has stated his own commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. He will be the first person of color in the role and led in similar arenas while at Southern Miss. The regents unanimously approved Bennett for the chancellor role June 22.
Recipe for a UNL chancellor
Also in the fall of 2021, the campus community rallied against a fraternity after an alleged sexual assault occurred in the house on the first night of the semester.
Green said leaders had to really focus on their “North Star” and the campus mission and how to achieve that mission.
Green described the qualities of a UNL chancellor as requiring a love for the institution and the Nebraska community, being an academic leader with the knowledge of UNL’s academic rigor and the ability to be a public figure.
Green recalled the day in April 2016 when he was announced as UNL’s next chancellor. He was driving home with his wife on the southeast edge of Lincoln at the time.
“People looking at us in the car and doing the kind of like, ‘Isn’t that the guy that was just, you know, that they saw on TV?’” Green said.
Green said he has “no doubt” that Bennett will meet the demand and lead with passion, coming to love the place.
“I’m just a country boy, that’s the way I think,” Green said.
Green also described a couple of hopes for Bennett: embrace the N2025 Strategic Plan and see it through to fruition, develop the next plan, engage with Nebraskans, never forget UNL’s land-grant mission and aspire for excellence and access.
As for what’s next for Green, he said he plans to stay in Lincoln. He is involved on multiple boards, some connected to his university work, and he and his wife have a history in lay ministry work.
Another idea that he hasn’t ruled out is going to seminary and doing some formal training, which he hasn’t had the time to do before.
But above all, Green said, after the “pleasure and privilege of a lifetime as chancellor,” he and “Husker Jane” will continue to advocate for the University of Nebraska “in every way, shape or form possible.”
“We see nothing but great things ahead long term for the university, and we’re going to be there to support it,” Green said.
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