NU presidential search inches closer to recruitment phase after listening sessions

Search firm and advisory committee host inaugural sessions in Omaha, Kearney and Lincoln to find the right candidate to lead the University of Nebraska

By: - October 27, 2023 5:45 am

Members of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee to find the University of Nebraska’s next president join for an inaugural meeting Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, iin Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — The search for the University of Nebraska’s next president will be quick but not rushed and won’t fail — if the chair of the efforts has anything to say.

Regent Tim Clare of Lincoln, at left, speaks during a listening session to find the next University of Nebraska president at the NU Medical Center on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Regent Tim Clare, chair of the NU Board of Regents, and a 22-member committee advising the search, dismissed rumors this week that the regents have already selected a candidate. He said the regents also do not have a set timeline but will be as aggressive and effective as possible. 

Clare said NU will likely need an interim president when NU President Ted Carter leaves at year’s end to lead The Ohio State University.

Regents have expressed a desire to select a leader who knows Nebraska a little more and stays longer. The search firm being used to aid the process boasts that more than 90% of the presidents and chancellors it places stay at their institutions for longer than five years. Carter will leave after serving as NU’s president for four years.

Clare told the Nebraska Examiner that the next leader will also bring an “it factor” that embodies the Cornhusker State.

“I can’t define it. I can’t put my finger on it. I can’t say what it is,” Clare told the Nebraska Examiner on Thursday. “But it’s there.”

The search committee, which includes all eight regents and all four nonvoting student regents, will forward a list of semi-finalists to the board for further consideration. The board will then select one priority candidate, who will undergo a 30-day public vetting period before a final vote.

Those wishing to provide further comments during the ongoing search can do so here.

Staff demands representation

Thursday marked the inaugural meeting of the advisory committee following eight listening sessions this week across NU’s four campuses. The Examiner attended one session at each campus.

Regent Tim Clare, chair of the search advisory committee for the University of Nebraska’s next president, joins members of the Academic Search firm at the University of Nebraska at Kearney on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Faculty, staff, students and community members at those sessions described the leader they’re looking for, including someone who will focus on staff; prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion; be a physical presence on all NU campuses; and understand the strength of the entire system.

At all but the University of Nebraska at Kearney, staff criticized a lack of representation among the 22 advisory members. One attendee at UNL’s Thursday forum suggested the regents change the committee’s composition.

Clare told the Examiner that at some point, the regents have to have a “functioning” search committee. 

“I’m sorry that they’re not included,” Clare said. “They provide a very valuable service to our community, to our campuses, and they’ll have the time — when we do identify a priority candidate — that they can come forward and have the chance to vet that candidate.”

Higher education meets politics

Attendees at this week’s forums also brought up the ongoing political climate under Gov. Jim Pillen. As a regent from 2013-2023, Pillen chaired the 2019 search that brought Carter to Nebraska.

Joy Castro, director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute for Ethnic Studies, said Thursday that the next president has to effectively communicate with Pillen and the Legislature. She called out Pillen’s dismissal of a reporter who looked into nitrates at his family’s company, Pillen Family Farms, because she is “from communist China.”

Castro, a professor of English and ethnic studies, told the Examiner this doesn’t mean NU needs a president more aggressive but someone who is collaborative, willing to listen and up to the task of using their position to educate elected officials.

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Pillen, during his 2021 campaign for governor, also brought NU into the national spotlight as he unsuccessfully pushed to ban the imposition of critical race theory on NU campuses. 

Carter and the respective campus chancellors pushed back in the name of academic freedom. 

State aid has slowed under Pillen, with the state granting a 2.5% increase in funding this year, a compromise between Pillen’s recommended 2% increase and NU’s requested 3% increase.

When accepting the presidency at Ohio State in August, Carter hinted at headwinds facing higher education but did not state why he was leaving NU.

“I know that education across our nation is somewhat under attack, and I believe that Ohio State University is that institution that can change the course of that dialogue,” Carter said.

Clare sidestepped a question Thursday on whether the political climate could impact the NU presidential search. He instead said the board would find a candidate that matches Nebraska values. 

These include someone hardworking, humble and honest, with high integrity, Clare said.

‘Essential ingredients’ of next president

John Stinner, retired president and CEO of Valley Bank and Trust Co. of Gering and a former state senator. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The search is borrowing nine “Core Leadership Pillars” that were created in 2019, under Pillen’s leadership on the Board of Regents, to define the next NU president. Advisory member John Stinner, retired president and CEO of Valley Bank and Trust Co. of Gering, suggested that the next president also needs to understand NU’s budget and financial process.

“Having a business acumen, I think, is one of the essential ingredients,” said Stinner, a former state lawmaker who served six years as chair of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

William Melanson, an associate professor of philosophy and president of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Faculty Senate, said the next president needs to be a “molder of consensus,” in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. 

The next university leader needs to value all education and all of NU as well, including liberal arts, Melanson said.

“I think that the next president needs to see the campus system as a family with lots of different children, with different needs and different strengths and needs to play to all of those strengths,” Melanson said.

Chris Exstrom, UNK Faculty Senate president and a professor of inorganic chemistry, said the next leader needs to appreciate and defend academic freedom.

‘Work of the heart’

Jay Lemons, leader of the three-member team from Academic Search, speaks at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Academic Search, a search firm founded in 1976 as the first national firm committed to higher education recruitment, is assisting NU in its search. Three of its members led the listening sessions this week with Clare.

Jay Lemons, a Scottsbluff native leading the firm’s team, said the group will use a targeted recruitment strategy and advertise NU as a capstone, not a stepping stone.

Finding the right candidate will also involve the NU community’s “network of our collective networks” as they are encouraged to suggest possible candidates.

A final position advertisement will be done “expeditiously,” Lemons added.

“The well-being of my home state really depends on the vibrance and vitality of how well our system does,” Lemsons said at the UNL forum. “It’s important work — at least for me, it’s also a work of the heart.”


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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.