Farewell State of the University - Introduction

Delivered April 1, 2016

Thank you all for coming. And thanks to Rick Alloway and the staff of University Communications for this journalistic review of the last 15 years. I must say they have gone quickly. Thanks also to Roctavo and Paul Barnes.

I have noted that as I approach the end of my term as chancellor, I am increasingly free from the political restraints that limit what I can say. For those of you who might be getting nervous about my exercise of this freedom—and you know who you are—you can relax. I’m not going to do a “Bo Pelini.” You know what a “Bo Pelini” is? It is defined in the urban dictionary as an “expletive-laced rant expressing outrage on leaving a position you didn’t want anyway.” Not going to do it.

I have been honored in every way to serve as your chancellor for these last 16 years. It has been extraordinarily fun to share this journey with you.

I want to thank my family, particularly Susan, for putting up with me. Our oldest grandchild, Will Spinar, was born shortly after I became interim chancellor and watching him grow up illustrates how quickly the time has passed. He thinks everyone watches Husker football from a skybox.

And our newest and sixth grandchild, Aven, was born in the last year of my term. You now understand that I decided to step down as an effort in population control.

Certainly I want to thank everyone who served with me in this administration, many of whom have been with me for most or all of this time. A few deserve special mention. Chris Jackson, a model of a servant leader, was hired by my predecessor but started work about the same time as I did. Prem Paul who was my first major vice-chancellor appointment and who gave an identity and an energy to our research enterprise. Beyond his playing an instrumental role in advancing this university, he has also become a dear friend. Michelle Waite who was also a recent hire when I arrived and who had the unenviable task of explaining the university, and particularly me, to the legislature and other constituencies.

Bill Nunez, another early hire as director of Institutional Research and Planning, and now as my chief of staff, has the uncanny ability to read my thoughts before I think them. Juan Franco, who valued and touched students on a personal level. Ellen Weissinger, a longtime campus citizen, who stepped in as senior vice chancellor to modernize our academic operations. Ronnie Green, who proved that with the right leadership, IANR could be made to work for both agriculture and the university at large. And all of the others who have or continue to serve in these positions: Thank you.

Two personal shout-outs: Meg Lauerman, who brought talent and professionalism to our communications effort and who will join me this year in stepping down. And also Amber Williams, who does not get the credit she deserves for fashioning a sophisticated, data-driven recruitment effort.

I am often asked to assess my leadership style and to identify my legacy. Neither task seems to lead to any particularly valuable end. As I think back on what our team tried to do to make a difference in this university, the universal truth is that we invested in talent. We made small and large bets on existing and prospective faculty who had creative ideas and the qualities necessary to implement them.

This was not without risk and we had both successes and failures. But I think on the whole it explains why the stature of this university is far higher than it was 15 years ago.

A university at our time in its history had to take risks. The World-Herald series in my first year headlined, and more significantly, documented the mediocre nature of this university’s performance. This was not a time to be content with our status or to think we could be cautious in our actions. We had too much catching up to do. So we pursued targeted and largely controversial budget cuts rather than the less risky approach of cutting across the board in order to preserve areas of strength. We merged colleges and other programs in order to achieve synergies and scale. We encouraged deans to bring us potential hires of established faculty at other universities who could make a difference here and we aggressively pursued them. We proactively sought the state fairgrounds as the only property adjacent to the university that could free us to expand our research agenda through partnership with the private sector. And we severed some historical institutional ties by moving to the Big Ten.

I want to particularly acknowledge the presidents of the university and those members of the Board of Regents who risked their own political fortunes to support our efforts. I continue to believe such risk taking and such support will be crucial in the years ahead if the university’s momentum is to be sustained.

There are two other larger groups that I personally want to acknowledge. First, the business leaders who formed the original 2015 visioning group and worked to energize the City of Lincoln and to create a metropolitan environment appropriate for a major university.

The second group are our alumni. Whether by philanthropy through the University of Nebraska Foundation or by their advice and assistance through the Nebraska Alumni Association, they were critical elements of our success. The capital campaign that ended in 1999 fueled our early growth and the most recent capital campaign will permit our momentum to continue.

I know I could spend considerably more time reciting the individuals and their achievements that have, for good or ill, allowed me to sustain my enthusiasm for this position for 16 years. But since I am not leaving town, nor am I leaving the university, I will have time to thank many of you personally in the years ahead.

As I retreat back to the law college and attempt to revive my teaching and research skills, I have pledged to myself that I will try hard to practice biting my tongue. I hope not to cast a continuing shadow over my successor, who I am sure will do things differently than I would. But now, on this occasion, which is the last time as chancellor I can touch on the state of the university, I want to make a few quick points about the challenges and opportunities I see ahead of us.