Updated Wednesday 11:53 a.m.
By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. — Gov. Dave Heineman said Wednesday he has applied to be president of the University of Nebraska, and immediately ruffled some feathers by requesting meetings with people involved in the search for a new president.
The chairman of the university’s Board of Regents put out a statement denouncing the governor’s requests for meetings with various people.
“Now that the governor has publicly announced his candidacy for the position, his current requests for one-on-one meetings with the members of the Board of Regents, chancellors and other administrators, and search committee members are inappropriate and will not be honored,” Howard Hawks said in the statement. “To do so would present a problem of fairness and it is not practical to track and offer comparable opportunities to all candidates.”
Hawks said the regents have put a process in place for recruiting and selecting the next president.
“It would be most unfortunate for the citizens of the state if any particular person’s interest in the position resulted in undermining the legitimacy of the search and kept any highly qualified individuals from applying for the presidency,” Hawks said.
“Let me be very clear. This is a fair and competitive process and the Board of Regents seeks and welcomes the candidacy of any person, including the governor, who believes he or she has the qualifications and experiences necessary to effectively lead the University of Nebraska. Our objective is to seek, vet, and hire the most qualified candidate.”
The entrance of a big name candidate like the governor could have a chilling effect on other possible applicants — an effect documented in a Chronicle of Higher Education story last week, which noted Heineman’s entry would shift the dynamics of NU’s search.
“When a big name applies for a college presidency, that person’s presence can cast a shadow over the entire search,” the Chronicle said. “Candidates without household names shy away from going up against prominent figures out of a fear of being dwarfed by their well-known competitor, be it a politician or a former college-football coach.”
During his news conference, the governor sold himself in what served as a good primer for any future interviews.
“I know Nebraska,” he told reporters. “I love this great state, I’m passionate about education and I would be honored to be the next president of the University of Nebraska.”
Asked whether making his candidacy public wouldn’t discourage other candidates from applying, given his close connections with former NU President J.B. Milliken and some regents, two of whom he appointed, he said “Absolutely not.”
As governor, he said he expects to be held to a higher level of scrutiny and expectations and expects that national search to yield “plenty of outstanding candidates.”
“I welcome that,” he said. “And I hope to meet or exceed their expectations.”
Asked why he decided to go public with his candidacy, he said reporters constantly ask him what he’s going to do when his term expires at year’s end, and he believes in open, transparent government.
Hawks said earlier this year he hopes to hire a current university chancellor or president for the job. Heineman doesn’t have any experience in running a university, nor does he have a graduate degree.
But Heineman said, “chancellors and provosts pretty much run the university particularly as it relates to academics.”
Heineman said Wednesday he understands the view of those who want a university president with a higher education background.
“I think it’s a natural reaction; my challenge is to overcome that,” he said.
Highlighting his work on education and economic development as governor for the past decade, Heineman said he notified the Board of Regents on Tuesday with a letter. The letter said his top priority would be affordable tuition rates, noting that he worked with Milliken to fund a two-year tuition freeze.
Milliken left NU on May 2 to take a job as chancellor of the City University of New York.
Other goals he listed in his letter to regents were reaching student enrollment goals, expanding scholarships for low- to middle-class families and increasing research activity.
Heineman pointed out that during the Great Recession, he worked to increase funding for the university system while most states were cutting funding. He also supported $25 million in funding for the university’s Innovation Campus in Lincoln, along with millions in other university initiatives only a governor could put on his resume.
While the university has significantly increased research and donor funding, he said the potential is enormous for more. He also complimented the NU faculty, saying they’re one of the most important assets and he’s been impressed with their talent and knowledge when he’s interacted with them at all the colleges.
He stressed the importance of the university’s involvement in Nebraska’s P-16 initiative, which has boosted graduation and college-going rates.
“We are also focused on increasing the graduation rates of Nebraska’s colleges and universities,” he said.
He said he would get to know the faculty and show them he shares a commitment to education, in part after being married to a former elementary school teacher and principal. The board has said it’s looking for someone to lead the complex organization and “Obviously I’ve done that as the leader of state government,” he said.
“I support academic freedom,” he said. “I’ve lived with an educator all my life so I understand the academic culture.”
Asked about his past opposition to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, stem cell research and extending benefits to domestic partners or same-sex couples (which NU recently instituted), Heineman said the regents have already decided those issues and it’s the president’s job to execute the board’s vision.
“The university has a different constituency than the governor has,” he said. “My opinions haven’t changed but you have a responsibility… to uphold the law of the land.”
Despite longtime rumors of his interest in the job, Heineman said he hadn’t really thought about it until people recently urged him to consider applying. He said he thought Milliken would be president “a lot longer.” When he looked at the criteria for applicants, he realized many of them mirror his job as governor.
After discussing it with his wife, Sally Ganem, they decided to go for it.
“She is all for it,” he said.
Heineman did not indicate plans to resign from his job as governor early, saying he talked to the presidential search firm in California and they indicated four finalists will be selected toward the end of the year, probably November.
While the governor is known to be a skilled political animal, he said being president of the university would be “very nonpolitical” and he would not be engaged in Republican party politics. However, he said, Milliken is a good example of how “you need to understand politics.”
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