Priority candidate for UNL chancellor is 30-year veteran of higher ed, and would be first person of color in the role

By: - May 22, 2023 2:04 pm

University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — A 30-year veteran of higher education and former president of the University of Southern Mississippi has been named the priority candidate for chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Rodney Bennett, if approved by the Board of Regents, would be the first person of color in that role at UNL.

Rodney Bennett is priority candidate for the next UNL chancellor position. (Courtesy of University of Nebraska)

He would succeed Ronnie Green, who is retiring after seven years as UNL chancellor.

NU president Ted Carter named Bennett as his priority selection Monday following a national search.

Now Bennett is to undergo a 30-day vetting process that includes public forums (the schedule is to be released soon). Members of the public are invited also to weigh in online before Bennett’s candidacy is brought to the Regents’ June 22 meeting.

Just days ago, Bennett was nudged out of his bid for president of Utah State University. He had been one of three finalists forwarded for the position to that state’s Board of Higher Education, which on May 19 announced that a different finalist had been selected, according to the university’s public affairs service.

Bennett, for nearly a decade through 2022, served as president of Southern Mississippi, a 14,000-student institution with multiple campuses. 

According to an NU statement, “Bennett brought Southern Miss into the top tier of research institutions, delivered improved student outcomes, invested in faculty and high-growth academic programs, and stabilized the budget through fiscally conservative management.”

Carter said those were reasons and qualities that he felt made Bennett the “right person” for the job at Nebraska’s flagship university.

“Dr. Bennett has made his institution stronger than when he arrived,” Carter said. “He is a proven and gifted leader, an exceptional relationship-builder, and he knows from personal experience that higher education is nothing less than a transformative force in a student’s life.”

Bennett said he was “humbled” by the opportunity and said he agrees with Carter that higher education is at a “crucial juncture.”

“The challenges we face are real, but with unapologetically bold leadership, the right teams in place, and an unwavering focus on our foundational priorities of teaching, research and service, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln can set a new standard of excellence among flagship universities,” Bennett said.

The NU statement said that Bennett invested in programs to support student recruitment, retention and outcomes, including for the 30% of USM students who are first-generation. His efforts reportedly led to declines among students who earned D’s and F’s or withdrew from science and history courses, and USM’s overall six-year graduation rate improved.

Bennett also increased the average salary for full-time faculty, oversaw $300 million in facilities work and launched the largest fundraising campaign in USM’s history in 2022, the statement said. He championed USM’s Division I athletics program, promoting investment in new facilities and programs to support student-athletes, including a dedicated mental health counselor to serve student-athletes. During Bennett’s tenure, USM student-athletes reportedly earned their highest overall grade point average in recorded history, a 3.1 across all sports.

Bennett and his wife, Temple, have two adult daughters. 

He served previously at the University of Georgia for over a decade, rising to associate professor and vice president for student affairs. He also was dean of students at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and associate dean of student life at Middle Tennessee State University.


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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.