News that University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken is leaving for the City University of New York was met with disappointment from the NU community and praise for Milliken's tenure.
Milliken will leave the four-campus, 50,000-student NU system by June 1 and become chancellor of the 24-campus, 269,000-student CUNY system.
Milliken, a native of Fremont and an alumnus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said in a statement that serving as NU's president has been “one of the greatest privileges of my career.”
He told faculty and staff in an email that he and his wife, Nana Smith, always wanted to return to New York, where he went to law school and worked for a Wall Street law firm. He and Smith met at the law firm.
“This university (NU) is poised for great things,” Milliken said. “While it is difficult to leave, I am deeply honored to have the opportunity to serve as the chancellor of CUNY, a university that plays such a vital role for the nation's largest city and the entire country.”
CUNY's board of trustees voted unanimously Wednesday to hire Milliken after considering about 50 candidates and interviewing a dozen. They praised Milliken's efforts to bring more low-income and minority students to NU, and the jump in college attendance rates among the Nebraska population during his tenure, as proof of his qualifications for the CUNY job.
In Nebraska, regents, legislators and alumni alike said Milliken would leave NU a better institution than the one he arrived at in 2004. They said he played major roles in new initiatives, fundraising and boosting the university's research profile.
NU Board of Regents Chairman Tim Clare said he tried to talk Milliken into staying when Milliken told him Tuesday about the CUNY job.
“He indicated he felt like he had done all the things he'd had on his list to do for the University of Nebraska. It was time to write a new chapter in his life,” Clare said. “We're very happy for him, but we're also sad to see him leave because he was a tremendous visionary.”
The board will conduct a national search for Milliken's replacement and will most likely call a special meeting to discuss interim leadership, Clare said. The University of Nebraska purchased a $750,000 house in Lincoln last month to serve as the official residence for NU's president. A foundation spokeswoman said Milliken's family has not moved in.
Milliken first joined NU as an executive assistant to the president in 1988. He later became a vice president of the division of external affairs before leaving in 1998 for a similar role at the University of North Carolina. In 2004, while serving as UNC's senior vice president of university affairs, Milliken was hired as NU's seventh president after a contentious search.
During Milliken's tenure, NU grew, hitting near-record enrollment last year of 50,705 students systemwide. NU launched several universitywide institutes, including the Daugherty Water for Food Institute and the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.
The Legislature also funded the Building a Healthier Nebraska plan, which included the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center at the NU Medical Center, a new veterinary center at UNL and an allied health professions building at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Tuition was frozen last year for the first time. The University of Nebraska Foundation had its biggest year ever in 2013 with $236.7 million in private donations.
Milliken also seemed to connect with alumni, often going out of his way to appear at functions at home and away athletic events, said Jeannine Falter, a past president of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Alumni Association and a Lincoln resident. He also showed that he cared about Nebraska's future and keeping college affordable, Falter said.
“I think students and parents in the state of Nebraska really rely on the university to provide an opportunity, and I think he realized it was an important piece of his job,” Falter said.
There were also moments of controversy. In 2011, UNL was the first institution to ever be voted out of the prestigious Association of American Universities because of what it called UNL's low level of research funding. Milliken was criticized for taking a paid corporate board position with one of the Daugherty Water for Food Institute's private partners, Valmont Industries, that paid $230,000 annually on top of Milliken's $431,276 salary and $240,000 in other compensation.
As CUNY chancellor, Milliken's annual compensation will total $670,000, not including the use of a university car and residence, the New York Times reported.
The CUNY board chairman, Benno Schmidt, praised Milliken's accomplishments at NU in ranking him as CUNY's top pick for the chancellor job. His proven track record in increasing access for low-income students and Nebraska's jump in college-going numbers proved that he'd be a good fit for CUNY, Schmidt said before the vote. He said Milliken very recently turned down better-paying positions because CUNY was his top choice.
State Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, who was a member of the screening committee that recommended hiring Milliken as NU president, said Wednesday that she imagined that he got lots of offers to leave Nebraska over the years because “he's such a bright guy.”
Last year, Milliken's name was publicly floated as a potential candidate to be head of the University of California system. He turned down another offer just this week, according to Clare.
“I just think that Nebraska was fortunate to have his leadership for the time he's been here,” Campbell said.
Other lawmakers who have worked with Milliken on education issues were taken by surprise by the news.
Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, the Education Committee chairwoman, called his loss “regrettable” and listed his leadership on the state's P-16 efforts, which aims to coordinate education from preschool through college, and rural development initiatives among his accomplishments.
“He's done some really good things for this state,” she said.
Regent Hal Daub said one of Milliken's greatest achievements is building a great team. He's made key hires that have led to a stronger reputation, rising research funding and record donations for the NU system, Daub said.
“For a small state like Nebraska, he was a dynamo,” he said. “It'll take heavy lifting to find someone who can start where J.B. leaves us, which is a much improved place, and take it to the next level.”
Staff writers Martha Stoddard and Paul Hammel contributed to this report.
Email message from University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken to NU Foundation board of trustees
Dear members of the Foundation Board of Trustees,
I am writing to let you know that this afternoon, the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York approved my appointment as chancellor of that institution, effective June 1, 2014. While I am honored and excited about this new challenge in the city where I began my career, I will always tremendously value my time as president of the University of Nebraska.
As a native Nebraskan and University of Nebraska graduate, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity I've had to lead my alma mater during a time of such momentum and excitement. I will miss the friends and colleagues I've had the pleasure of working with here – particularly the many people who have given me advice and voiced their support for the critical role the University of Nebraska plays in the overall success of the state. Your support has contributed enormously to the university's momentum.
CUNY is the largest urban university in the country, with 270,000 students matriculating on 24 campuses across New York City and another 218,000 students enrolled in continuing education. The CUNY chancellorship is one of the very few jobs beyond my current one that hold the highest appeal to me, and in the end, I was drawn to the opportunity to join this large and complex university that shares the institutional commitment that attracted me to the University of Nebraska.
Thanks to the leadership of the Board of Regents, the work of an outstanding faculty and staff, the commitment of state political leadership and support from donors and friends around the country, the University of Nebraska has been on a remarkable trajectory. And I know that momentum will continue. I could not be more confident in the potential this university has to do even more to serve Nebraskans and people around the world.
Thank you for your support of the University of Nebraska. I am honored to be associated with this great institution, and I will always remember my time here fondly.
James B. Milliken
University of Nebraska