What to Look For in a New UNL Chancellor

Lincoln -- Those who are choosing the next chancellor of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln are probably not looking for the following qualifications and inclinations, but should be.

1. Academic research skills. UNL is the state's only public research university. It should be led by a scholar who has demonstrated research skills and an understanding of the research process.

Academic research in America is under justified suspicion from many quarters. According to a recent study published in Science, much social science research is not replicable, a sine qua non of the endeavor. And research findings in the natural sciences too often must be discounted as research for sale, being funded and conducted by those with conflicts of interest. UNL research is not immune from these problems.

UNL has been removed from the ranks of leading research institutions, having in 2011 been voted out of the Association of American Universities. The current chancellor was not able to convince his former AAU colleagues that UNL should remain in this select group. Suffice it to say the effort was badly bungled. The slap at UNL stings like no other in the once-proud history of the institution. Led by its natural sciences faculty, the university was among the first institutions admitted to the AAU over a century ago.

The new chancellor should make it a priority to regain AAU membership. A good first step would be to re-invigorate the UNL faculty with a set of research standards and ethics second to none in the nation, live by them, and earn back respect through such leadership. This can be done best by someone with research credentials himself or herself.

2. Athletics reformer. A former chancellor once told me the biggest surprise that awaited him in the office was how much time he had to spend on university athletics. The issues were never-ending and took his valuable time away from academic matters. Given that the next chancellor will have to spend time on athletics, let it be in the cause of reform. College football especially needs reforms. A chancellor who would help lead the effort nationally might even gain enough respect to earn admission back into the AAU.

A model of such a chancellor is my late, great friend Dr. Hans Brisch, a Nebraskan who became the chancellor of the University of Oklahoma system. He cleaned up the athletics program there and put it into proper perspective, despite considerable personal danger to himself, and put Oklahoma on the map for its statewide college preparation programs. I will never forget, and always appreciate, the support he gave our efforts at the national level to institute some of the same changes he made in Oklahoma.

3. Nebraska college friendly. The next chancellor should be a supporter of all Nebraska colleges, not just UNL. Enough with the divisiveness between the NU components and the attempt to grow UNL at the expense of other institutions. Nebraska needs healthy colleges throughout the state, not just in the capital city. State and private colleges have important roles in the smaller cities and towns where they are located; so do community colleges. If UNL can grow by legitimately attracting out-of-state students, foreign students, those who might not otherwise attend college, and those resulting from state population growth, good. But the higher education enterprise in Nebraska must be balanced and healthy as a whole, not viewed as a competition among and within its various systems. The next chancellor should give up the mantra of demanding that all UNL needs, real or imagined, must be met before resources are shared elsewhere. The next chancellor will be, after all, a state employee whose salary is paid by all Nebraska taxpayers, and must see himself or herself accountable to all of them.

The above qualifications are not likely to be on the list of those choosing the next chancellor. The unfortunate trend these days is to look for candidates with a background in administration of one sort or another and those who demonstate fund-raising prowess. Head hunters seek out candidates who will bring in research dollars, the quality and ethics of the research be damned. But such people are not what UNL really needs. Is it naive to look for another chancellor cut from the same cloth as Charles Bessey or James Canfield? Probably so, but one can always hope.