Leading a system like the University of Nebraska is a complicated job that requires political ties, a healthy respect for the mission and experience that proves both, experts say.
Much about the search for NU's next president is still in the air. It may be a year before NU names that leader, and whether the public will know who's competing for the job is in the Nebraska Legislature's hands.
But regents and community members have clear priorities for their next president. And when the national search begins, NU will likely be competing with many similar institutions.
Presidents who postponed retirement or seeking a new job during the recession are now choosing to make moves, said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council of Education.
But she thinks NU, with a history of strong financial support from the Legislature and donors alike, will be attractive. Key to a successful search, Broad said, is ensuring that your candidates are committed to your institution's mission and understand its value.
“This is a complicated job, but success in a president's job, No. 1, requires that you are absolutely passionate about what the university can do to serve the next generation of students and the future population of Nebraska,” Broad said.
Broad was NU President J.B. Milliken's boss during his tenure as a vice president at the University of North Carolina, before he took over as NU president in 2004. Finding a candidate like Milliken, a native Nebraskan with leadership experience at another institution, would be icing on the cake, she said.
Board of Regents Chairman Howard Hawks hopes to call for a special meeting this month to discuss appointing an interim president, who could be on the job by April.
The board also will move toward forming a search committee charged with finding a replacement for Milliken. That search could take up to a year, Hawks said. Milliken will leave in late April to become chancellor at the City University of New York.
Hawks listed enrollment growth, projects like the Innovation Campus and the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center and improving the Peter Kiewit Institute as issues a new president would have to be ready for.
One person familiar with all these plans is Gov. Dave Heineman, who has been rumored to be interested in the job. Heineman had said he wasn't interested before Milliken announced his departure, but he has deflected questions since. Heineman, whose term as governor ends next January, declined a request for an interview through his spokeswoman.
Hawks said he has not heard from the governor.
“He's obviously a smooth and qualified politician, so he knows what to say and when to say it,” Hawks said.
Hawks emphasized that the job is not a political appointment, though strong relationships with the Legislature and other politicians are necessary.
“Our main focus is not politics,” Hawks said. “It's education, service and research.”
He intends to hire a firm to conduct a national search. He said he believes a bill under consideration by the Legislature that would make secret all but the final candidate will be crucial to a successful search.
Regent Tim Clare said he wants to see a “visionary that could capture our strengths” and benefit Nebraska and the world, particularly where it concerns food and fuel research.
Discussions about Heineman as a candidate are premature, he said.
There are examples of politicians moving to public universities. Last year, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels was hired at Purdue University and former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano took over the University of California system.
But the far more common scenario is an administrator with a doctorate degree who started as a faculty member, said Matthew Chingos, fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute.
Leading a university system like NU's requires a balancing act between exerting influence and respecting campus autonomy, he said. It's also a job that requires a president to be the university's public face, adept at navigating politics and wooing donors.
The presidents that do it best often arrive with a track record from their last job, he said, and gain the faculty's trust faster with strong academic credentials.
“A person who hasn't been a faculty member or doesn't hold a doctorate is sometimes seen as an outsider who doesn't understand what they do,” Chingos said.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty want to see a new president that understands the value and importance of faculty, said Rigoberto Guevara, faculty senate president.
A goal Milliken set to bring faculty pay closer to that of peer universities remains unmet, Guevara said. He also wants to see a new leader take a stand on faculty independence as public-private partnerships continue to grow in UNL's research-based departments.
“We want a person who sees the university for what it is, a higher education institution and not a political platform,” Guevara said.
Maintaining NU's role as an affordable option is important to Sen. Bill Avery, who taught at UNL before becoming a legislator in 2007.
Tuition has been frozen for the 2014-15 school year systemwide, but Avery fears a big jump when that ends. He believes the only way to stop the increases is for the Legislature to boost funding.
“There is a danger that attending the University of Nebraska becomes something the average Nebraskan can't afford,” Avery said. Correction: Molly Corbett Broad was misidentified in a previous version of this story.