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Nebraska governor ruffles feathers in applying for NU presidency

By   /   May 28, 2014  /   News  /   No Comments

Updated Wednesday 5:52 p.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.”

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HE’S IN: Gov. Dave Heineman announced Wednesday he is applying for the job as president of the University of Nebraska.

Hawks said in an interview he wants potential applicants to know the regents intend to have a completely fair search process.

“I think it was important to have it be known that we’re not going to provide any applicant an advantage over all other candidates knowingly,” he said. “Our search consultants and me personally have some concerns that this will have a dampening effect on applications. I think that’s the history of this.”

Asked whether the governor should have kept his application quiet, Hawks said, “He could have.”

“Our objective is to keep all applicants confidential until we get to pick four (finalists),” he said. “Obviously if some applicant wants to go public for their own reasons, we have no control over that.”

Asked whether he felt the governor was applying public pressure on the board by going public, Hawks said, “Well he’s the politician so you would have to ask him that.”

But he said Heineman’s decision to go public with his decision to apply did not hurt his chances as an applicant.

The entrance of a big name candidate like the governor can 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.”

The governor took the unusual step of holding a press conference in the state capitol — and then sending out a press release — to announce his decision to apply for the NU job. During his news conference, the governor sold himself as he took questions from reporters in what surely was a good primer for any future interviews.

Asked whether making his candidacy public would 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.”

“My personal preference would be to have someone whose run an academic institution with multiple campuses,” Hawks said on Wednesday, but, he added, “You’ve got to pick the greatest candidate.”

Heineman said 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 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.

Regent Jim Pillen of Columbus declined to comment on Heineman’s entry, saying the regents agreed Hawks would act as the spokesman.

“We all want to be sure we have rich deep pool (of candidates),” he said.

Other goals Heineman 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.”

Quickly testing the governor’s support for academic freedom, an outspoken University of Nebraska-Lincoln chemistry professor and Academic Planning Committee member, Gerard Harbison, expressed concerns about Heineman’s very public decision to apply.

“Heineman could have applied for the job and maintained the integrity of the search, by quietly letting Isaacson Miller (the company conducting the search) know he was interested,” Harbison said. “Of course he didn’t. He took a blatantly political route that will flag to other candidates the process is political. I’m not sure Regent Hawks’ statement will cure that.”

Either the governor did that deliberately, or wasn’t aware of the impact his public candidacy would have, Harbison said. Either way, he thinks it should disqualify the governor, whom he doesn’t believe was qualified to begin with.

“I don’t think his lack of a terminal degree is the main issue,” he said. “He’s never served in a higher education institution in any capacity.”

He thinks the only thing that could “rescue” the search for a new president is if Heineman withdraws or the regents declare he’s not being considered.

“For all his cant about how he loves the university, he’s thrown a huge monkey-wrench into one of our more important searches,” Harbison said.

Another UNL associate professor of political philosophy, Ari Kohen, wrote in his blog that apart from not being qualified to run the university system, Heineman “also signaled that he doesn’t understand that a career in higher education doesn’t work like a career in politics.”

“No one holds a press conference to publicly announce his/her candidacy for a high-level position at a university; qualified candidates submit their application materials confidentially and only the names of the finalists for the position are made public,” Kohen wrote.

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.”

Contact Deena Winter at [email protected].

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Deena formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.