Managing a public university system with 24 campuses and 269,000 students requires ability and vision.
That’s the job J.B. Milliken will take on in June, when he steps down as president of the University of Nebraska and becomes chancellor of City University of New York, the nation’s third-largest university system.
Milliken, a Fremont, Neb., native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln alumnus, was selected out of 50 candidates for the CUNY leadership post, and that reflects well on his capabilities and on the progress that the NU system has made during his 10 years as its president.
Milliken would be the first to note that credit should be spread widely for the progress NU has made in so many areas over the past decade. That said, he has stood as a key figure in bringing about many of those successes.
He provided vision, presented convincing arguments, built trust and navigated complicated bureaucratic and political processes. The end result — on issues ranging from creation of cutting-edge research institutes to complex capital construction projects to ambitious system-wide enrollment goals — was that each initiative wound up with broad support.
Among the notable steps forward: Creation of Innovation Campus, a public-private research partnership with enormous long-term potential for NU. The launch of respected research institutes on issues including water policy and early childhood. Major new facilities for medical programs (above all, the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center) and veterinary training. NU’s growing international profile through its groundbreaking work in the areas of water policy and agricultural science.
Plus, the expansion of CollegeBound Nebraska to aid college entry of low-income students. International outreach for wide-ranging academic partnerships and student recruitment. A two-year tuition freeze currently in place. And continued growth in enrollment.
Milliken’s judgment and personal traits often were a plus. He worked with folks across the state. He made sound determinations of Nebraska’s areas of strength and encouraged NU to specialize in those fields. He had good communications with the state’s business community, to understand its practical needs.
NU has been greatly aided by consistent budget support from the Nebraska Legislature and Gov. Dave Heineman. Even when major budget-cutting was needed during the recent recession, they did their best to limit damage to NU, in contrast to the sharp cuts in many other states.
Milliken’s successor will have the advantage of building on an impressive foundation, but the new president also will have challenges.
It will be crucial to continue to manage costs so that NU can remain affordable for average- income Nebraskans. Reaching the enrollment goals will be key. NU has big responsibilities in growing and managing Innovation Campus. And NU needs to keep the momentum building for its respected research efforts in medicine, agriculture and other areas.
Mentors in one’s professional life are important, and Milliken himself benefited from the lessons he received earlier in his administrative career both here and in North Carolina. As he leaves to pursue opportunities elsewhere, NU leaders and staff can learn from the vision and commitment Milliken demonstrated during his years at the presidential helm.
In so doing, they can lift the University of Nebraska to the next level, continuing the notable progress of the past decade.