Time to Re-think the NU Presidency?

April, 2019

Lincoln -- The resignation of University of Nebraska president Hank Bounds has set off discussion as to what led him to resign and speculation as to who might be next to fill the office. Bounds said he was overworked and wanted to spend more time with his family. That's a good reason.

Sometime soon, however, we should all ask whether this might be a good time for structural or job-description reforms, in view of evidence that the NU president's job is too much for any one person.

There is no doubt that the current university governance structure, which dates from the early 1970s, has had unfortunate, unintended consequences.

The University of Nebraska was once among the nation's prestigious research universities with membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU). Such membership helped attract top faculty, among other benefits. But when the Omaha-based College of Medicine was broken off from the Lincoln-based colleges, AAU eventually forced "UNL" out of the exclusive association. Other universities that kept their medical centers administratively attached to their main campuses did not suffer such a fate.

The existing NU structure also did not save UNL from getting in trouble with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), creating yet more faculty problems. Although it was UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green who violated (according to AAUP) a graduate student's due process, NU president Hank Bounds was of little help and essentially a bystander in the controversy, which drew unwanted national headlines.

Durward "Woody" Varner, creator of the current structure and the first NU president, was the model of a strong leader who, I believe, would have either charmed or bulled his way out of both the AAU and AAUP controversies. He likely would have persuaded Wisconsin's Biddy Martin and Michigan's Mary Sue Coleman to drop their effort to remove UNL from the AAU, something then-UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman could not do. And Woody Varner would not have been a bystander to the state legislative interference that got UNL into trouble with the AAUP. When legislative interference threatened NU in the 1970s, Varner persuaded the Board of Regents to sue to retain University independence, and he won.

But even for Woody Varner, the NU presidency may have been too demanding. He resigned unexpectedly to take a job with the NU Foundation. Which raises the question of whether the current structure expects too much of any individual.

On top of that, NU faces difficult times ahead because Nebraska's agricultural economy is failing. Hank Bounds recently put together an impressive attempt to show how the University can help the state's economy, but it has no urgent or visionary emphasis on agriculture, where it is most needed. And even his limited vision is hardly shared at the statehouse, where the executive branch is in one-party control and still looking to the farm-policy philosophy of Earl ("Get Big or Get Out") Butz* as a lodestar, which has long since lost its luster.

Rick Ruggles of the Omaha-World Herald has summarized some of the issues facing the next president. But the failing farm economy is not listed, nor is the fact that whoever the NU president is, he or she will face intense pressure from the agribusiness lobby to acquiesce in, if not outright assist in, the further monopolization and consolidation of Nebraska agriculture, which is a part of the problem.

My recommendation to the Regents is to look at the NU governance structure at least to note how it has not been a ringing success, then write a job description for the next NU president that is attuned to the times. Relieve the president of administrative duties that wore out Hank Bounds. Instruct the presidential search organization to look for a leader who can stand up for the University on the big, national reputation issues, and who has a vision to fulfill the land-grant university's mission to create a robust rural economy. That means people like Tom Vilsack and Mark Dayton, Wes Jackson and Anna Johnson, should be consulted in the search. As agriculture goes, so goes the University.

Woody Varner created an office of the presidency at Varner Hall with big shoes. The Board of Regents should try to fill them.
*Earl Butz was U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford until he resigned over telling one too many inappropriate jokes. He later went to prison for tax-evasion. He was an agricultural economist from Purdue University who championed large agribusiness, corporate farming, and consolidation of farms.