The University of Nebraska Board of Regents made history on Thursday, May 30, by selecting Susan Fritz as the first woman to lead NU in the system’s 51 years.
Fritz has been with the NU system for 30 years and has served as executive vice president and provost since 2012, where she oversees all academic affairs, research and partnerships. Starting Thursday, Aug. 15, Fritz will be the interim replacement for outgoing president Hank Bounds while the board searches for the next president.
“For the last seven years, I’ve had a front-row seat as the provost and worked very closely with the president; some would say I have the number two position,” she said. “... I also feel with my institutional memory and experience that I have something to bring to the interim position.”
Fritz, now 62, joined UNL in 1989 as an instructor in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication before earning tenure in 1998, according to Nebraska Today. She later became the department head in 2000 and went on to hold various leadership roles, including the associate dean of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
She said being the first female president holds great significance for her. Although Fritz has served in a male-dominated environment throughout her administrative career, she has benefited from the mentorship from both males and females. Additionally, she researches how women and gender studies relate to leadership.
“I think it’s important for women who are in my stage of their career, younger perhaps, maybe in the K-12 environment, to see that it’s possible for a woman to come forward and be in a position like this,” she said. “It’s pretty awesome when you think about it.”
As a grandmother, she is already setting that example for her granddaughters. Fritz said one of them, a 9-year-old, called and asked for a lunch date to see her office and meet her colleagues.
“I think that’s very special because that plants a seed in [her] mind about what she can become,” Fritz said.
Being a woman in a male-dominated environment, according to Fritz, never limited her growth in the NU system.
“Whenever something didn’t go my way, or I was frustrated, my first default was not because I’m a female,” she said. “Now, sometimes that was the logical conclusion, and I couldn’t deny that. But we could say that about every environment. I was very fortunate to be a faculty member in the IANR. It was very good for me; I grew, developed and changed.”
Regents Tim Clare and Jim Pillen approached Fritz about the interim president position, and she was later nominated and approved by the Board of Regents in a 7-1 vote.
Clare said he supported Fritz for the interim position because of her experience across the NU system, her experience in agriculture and her background of growing up in Nebraska.
“That’s extremely important to us since agriculture is a big factor in our state,” he said. “She understands the culture of Nebraska.”
Additionally, Clare said she received support from other leaders in the NU system. UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green recommended her for the associate vice president for academic affairs position in 2011, former NU president James Milliken recommended her for the interim provost position in 2012 and Bounds recommended her for the provost position in 2014.
“I know [Fritz] to be hard-working, competent and an ardent supporter of our university and state,” Green said in an email. “She’s well-respected in her field and has shown tremendous leadership through various and increasingly advanced administrative roles at the university. [Fritz] is a Nebraska gem, and the university — and its students, faculty and staff — will be in good hands under her leadership.”
Clare said Fritz has a unique perspective having been a student, faculty member and administrator within the NU system. He said Fritz understands how all four campuses fit into the NU system and has respect from each.
Emily Johnson, a student regent and president of the Association of Students at the University of Nebraska at UNL, voiced her optimism about working with Fritz due to the perspective she provides as a former faculty member and UNL alumna.
“I am inspired to have the opportunity to work with her as the first female president of the NU system,” Johnson said. “I see her as both a role model and an advocate for representation in university leadership.”
Fritz said her biggest concern for the university system is staying competitive with other universities in attracting and maintaining qualified educators, researchers and other faculty and staff.
“It’s an arms race in hiring faculty and staff at the university when we’re competing with universities all over the country,” she said. “Because, if you’ve been paying attention to some of the people we’re attracting, we’re elbow-to-elbow with publics and privates in recruiting talent to the university.”
To address the competition from other universities, Fritz said she will be personally present in assisting the chancellors and deans across NU’s four schools during the recruiting process. By doing such, she pursues servant leadership.
“I really do believe I am here to serve the needs of the university, its employees, the citizens [and] the legislature,” she said.
As interim president, Fritz said she wants to reinforce what she sees as NU’s greatest strengths: its people and their ambitions.
“[It’s] putting others’ needs before mine, putting an organization’s needs before mine, making sure that I build relationships with the people I serve so that I can better understand what motivates them and helps them achieve,” she said. “And in some ways, to consider how I can minimize the number of problems they face so they can maximize their accomplishments.”