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A ‘dream come true’: Ronnie Green reflects on seven-year chancellorship

Ronnie Green Featured Image

Ronnie Green has been the chancellor of The University of Nebraska-Lincoln for the past 7 years. He recently announced his retirement. The Daily Nebraskan recorded an interview with him as he reflects on his time at UNL.

Guest teaching an animal science class on East Campus in the early afternoon on April 6, 2016, Ronnie Green told the senior class about his journey in animal science and what his life had been like to get to that point. 

Before leaving the classroom, he turned to the class to tell them one last thing: “Today is a really special day,” Green said. “Because as you’ll find out in about an hour, I’m to be named the chancellor of the university.”

After the announcement, Green said the words he used were, “This is surreal,” and “I can’t believe this is happening.”

“But this first-gen-educated kid from the hills of Virginia has an opportunity to lead a great university like this one that I am so proud to have a degree from,” Green said. “It’s just hard to describe. It really is hard to describe.”

When he first accepted the position, he said it didn’t quite feel like imposter syndrome but that he wondered a bit, “Why me? How can I stand up to do this job?”

Green focused on the opportunity the university had to be even bigger and more impactful and to continue to grow and develop. He said he was full of energy and excitement for what the future would hold for the university. 

“But at the same time, standing up there that day and accepting the responsibility of the role, [I was thinking,] ‘Wow, I can do this. I can do this as the leader of the institution. Wow, this is a big role,’” Green said. 

From his seven years as chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Green said what makes him proudest is the students that have graduated during his time. 

By May, Green said he will have seen nearly 40,000 students finish their degrees and complete their education at UNL. With three of the last five years seeing record numbers of graduates, he said he’s proudest not of what he’s done but of what the university has done in his time as chancellor. 

March Madness to university closure: March 2020

At a dinner with a few university donors in Palm Springs, California in late February 2020, University of Nebraska Medical Center Chancellor Jeffrey Gold read a report he had just gotten from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with the latest COVID-19 estimates. 

In that report, Green said the CDC was predicting large levels of infection with what could be a very rapid spread — as well as a significant loss of life. 

“That’s where it set into me — that night in that conversation with Chancellor Gold,” Green said. “This could be something that could be really monumental, disruptive [and] difficult for everybody, depending on how wide-scale it really became.” 

At the very front end of March Madness and the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament, the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors, which Green serves on, called an emergency meeting hours before the first two tournament games were supposed to start — the NCAA had canceled March Madness. 

The Husker basketball team was set to play against Indiana for the second game of the night, and with fans already trickling into the arena, they made the decision during that 3 p.m. emergency meeting to play the games. 

Green said he remembers watching the game on TV with his wife. The cameras kept panning to UNL coach Fred Hoiberg, who appeared to be sick and was eventually escorted out of the arena. 

COVID-19 was still so new at the time, so no one really knew how it manifested yet, Green said. 

“You can imagine, I’m sitting there … thinking, ‘Oh my God, our basketball coach has COVID, and we’re in a public arena with thousands of people,’” Green said. “The uncertainty was just palpable.” 

Fortunately, Hoiberg didn’t have COVID, but Green said that the next day is when the university leadership team made the decision to close the university. 

“We had a decision to make about how to protect our students, how to protect our faculty and our staff and how to protect the community of Lincoln. And remember, then, we didn’t really know much about how COVID transmissibility was going to work or the severity of what COVID could be,” Green said. “But there was a lot of fear of what that could be because it looked like it could be very dramatic.”

With no protection, no vaccine and no treatment, Green said they made the decision to send students home a week before spring break with the goal to get them out as safely and as quickly as they could, telling them they would make the decision about what to do with classes for the remainder of the spring term by the time spring break was over. 

“It was huge. It was a huge decision to make,” Green said. “Our leadership team was working around the clock on this for days. I remember thinking at the time, ‘We have this in hand, we know what we’re doing.’” 

Green said closing UNL was the first decision in Nebraska, describing it as the start of “the cascade that then everyone else followed.” 

Green said that sitting in his chair, making the initial decision to close the university, he felt confident that even with all the uncertainty, he knew the university could handle it. 

“Kind of one of those moments where you don’t want to be cliché about it, but where I just knew I was in the right place for the right reason,” Green said. “I was meant to be there in that moment.”

Going back to a hybrid campus in the fall, Green said the decision came from university officials feeling the students would be both safer on campus than they would elsewhere and that they could make mixed instruction — part in class and part virtual — work. 

“I’m so proud of how our faculty and students responded to that because they just pivoted and responded in a way that made it work, and made it work as well as we possibly could have,” Green said. “By the following semester, we were even more in person, and by the following fall semester, we pretty much were back fully in person.” 

Chancellor Ronnie Green listens to a concern during the N2025 meeting in the Regency Suite at the Nebraska Union on Wednesday, April 27, 2022,…

Hot dogs and spending time with students

Having the chance to work with Green was nerve-wracking for former Association of Students of the University of Nebraska President Jacob Drake — but only briefly. 

“It didn’t matter who I was or what I thought — he was going to support me no matter what because I was elected,” Drake said. “I knew I would have a good relationship with him.”

Drake was a part of the Only in Nebraska campaign, which raised money for the University of Nebraska Foundation. 

For Drake, the campaign not only illustrated the sheer size of the university, but it also humbled him knowing that the campaign vision will flow all the way down to the students who will be supported by scholarships for years and decades to come. 

“The chancellor’s ability to set a vision for the university, of both inclusivity and of being a leader in the Big Ten — he has always, to me, been very vocal about the mission of the university,” Drake said. 

As someone who will only spend time on campus for four years, Drake said Green’s “infinite wisdom” in higher education really supported him in his time as president. 

From the start of his term, Green taught Drake to build strong relationships with the people around him, thus building his capacity for success. 

“This is not just about connecting with the chancellor,” Drake said. “I mean, it really creates this culture at the University of Nebraska between everyone, and the 2025 goal is a culture where every person and every interaction matters.”

Drake was surprised to notice that Green seemed to be rather introverted, which wasn’t something he expected given all the events he goes to and the many interactions he has with people. 

Just a few weeks ago, Drake and Green spent two hours handing out red Fairbury hot dogs to students at the Nebraska Union Plaza. 

“And for me, it’s fun. You imagine the chancellor should be sitting in his office all day writing emails and documents and speeches,” Drake said. “But it’s cool to see someone at that level be able to just stand there and talk with a student — and give them a free hot dog. That’s really, really fun.”

Drake said it’s been amazing to think about the impact Green’s leadership and vision has had on the thousands of students who have gone through the university during his time. 

“When you think about the magnitude of his rule and his tenure as a leader here, I think it really puts into perspective just what kind of impact someone can have on your experience,” Drake said. 

Paul Pechous, the newly appointed ASUN president, said he hasn’t had very many interactions with Green yet, but when he does see Green, he said he can tell right away how much Green loves the university and can see the impact it has on the Nebraska community. 

“I think people would be surprised by the amount of stuff that he really is involved in on the university campus, even if it doesn’t always feel that way,” Pechous said. “He is very involved with the students’ stuff — more than people would expect.”

At the annual Chancellor’s BBQ back in 2019, Laurie Bellows, vice chancellor for student affairs, remembers seeing Green and his wife sitting on the steps eating with the students. And the 2022 barbeque was no different, with students lined up waiting to visit with them, she said.  

“Who does that?” Bellows said in an email. “Not one other senior administrator puts themselves so close to students.”

Green and his wife’s commitment to students, whether through the annual barbeque, participating in the Homecoming Parade, attending a sports event or popping out of a birthday cake, is unwavering and greatly appreciated, Bellows said. 

The student affairs office launched the Greek Vitality initiative in response to several campus events that put the Greek system in the spotlight, and Bellows said it was the first project she worked on with Green. 

“Chancellor Green’s goal was to make UNL the best campus in the country to be Greek,” Bellows said. “That initiative set the stage for several positive changes we’ve seen in fraternity and sorority life over the past six years.”

Green leads by example, Bellows said, and he recognizes that every administrator goes through good and bad times but taking a deep breath and using their best thinking gets them through it. 

“He has a coffee cup that says something like, ‘Stay calm and carry on,’” Bellows said. “Even when things were at their worst, he was calm and optimistic, at least on the outside, and that’s what we need from leaders.”

Commitment to learning

The sound of whistling down the hall usually signals Green is nearby, Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Inclusion Marco Barker said. 

Barker worked with Green on the CEO Action Pledge, where CEOs or leaders of organizations commit to fostering diversity and inclusion conversations on campus. 

Barker said UNL signed the pledge a year before he came to the university in 2019. When he arrived, he and Green talked about how to be more consistent with the pledge, which Barker said started with a lot of conversations with groups of people on campus. 

“What I most appreciated about it was that it felt like it gave people more access to him,” Barker said. “He’s relatively accessible and willing to meet with people — he just has a busy calendar.”

After the murder of George Floyd came a greater call for racial justice and equity, and Barker said he thought Green really understood that, as a white male, this was a time to learn. 

“Particularly in the context of George Floyd, to be a Black male, and as someone who identifies as a Black male and now a senior leader, for me, Chancellor Green did several things in that moment that I valued and appreciated,” Barker said.

For one, Barker said Green checked in on him to see how he was doing and feeling. He also took the time to learn. Barker said Green had a lot of meetings with different groups where people could share frustrations, including both what they wanted to see from the institution and also where they felt the university had failed in its history, especially in its responsiveness to communities of color. 

“Even though Chancellor Green may not have played a role in that experience, they shared and he listened. He didn’t try to justify it,” Barker said. “I mean, he could have provided a response, but he just took time to listen, and I think that’s easier said than done for leaders when there’s so much critique and so much emotion and feeling that people are bringing to a conversation.”

Barker said he really values Green’s ability to approach life as a lifelong learner. Following Floyd’s murder, Green asked Barker for suggestions on different books to read, and they would spend time discussing them together. 

“In a lot of the work he did around reading, he did it behind closed doors,” Barker said. “It wasn’t a major announcement — the reflection and the learning happened on his own time.”

Green could have said Floyd’s death was a moment that was not directly related to higher education or was not impacting the university to avoid being involved, Barker said. But Green didn’t do that. Instead, the two spent time having conversations with each other and with members of the community about how to make the university a safer and more inclusive place. 

“It was a tough time for many people,” Barker said. “And through all of that, he just remained curious and wanted to learn more so that he could have greater insight into what he could do to be a better leader.”

From the mountains to the plains

Green grew up on a farm in Virginia. His father, a Depression-era child and the oldest son in a family of 10, never got the chance to finish high school, leaving school in eighth grade to work to support his family, Green said. 

His mother finished high school but wasn’t able to attend college. Nevertheless, Green said, his parents firmly believed in the power of education. 

“They didn’t understand higher education in any way, sense or form, but they saw opportunity in it and believed in it,” Green said. “And so we were pushed — my sister and I — from the day we were born to pursue education and to better ourselves through education.” 

Growing up in a hard-working family, Green said work ethic and doing things right guided him. 

Starting his undergraduate education at Virginia Tech University, Green planned to be a large animal veterinarian before quickly realizing he was destined for something else. 

“I went into animal sciences as a teacher, researcher and academic instead,” Green said. “So that’s kind of the genesis, if you will, of how all that started.”

After receiving his master’s in animal science from Colorado State University, Green came to UNL in 1985 for his doctorate alongside the “very top people” in his field.

When he arrived for his doctoral degree, it wasn’t his first time in Nebraska. He grew up showing cattle and came to Nebraska for a show as a “youngster.” However, arriving in Lincoln, Green said his first impression was that it was really flat but also that people were so kind. 

“I grew up in the South, and we thought we were nice and kind,” Green said. “Nebraska was a new level of just really good people that were here.”

After being set up on a blind date with his now wife, Jane, whose family is deeply rooted in Nebraska, Green said he always had an inkling they would end up back in Nebraska. 

They spent a few years at Texas Tech University and Colorado State University after he received his doctorate, where he was a part of the animal science faculty before returning to Nebraska in 2003. 

They moved just over an hour west of Lincoln to Sutton, Nebraska to be with Jane’s mother after Jane’s father passed away. Green commuted to work, where he was the executive secretary of the White House’s interagency working group on animal genomics within the National Science and Technology Council.

From there, UNL recruited him to come to the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources as the Harlan Vice Chancellor before serving as the Interim Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs from 2015-16. 

When former Chancellor Harvey Perlman announced his retirement, Green said Perlman encouraged him to consider the role. 

“And lo and behold, a few years later, here I am being asked to assume that role,” Green said. “I would have never predicted it. I said it at that time, I said it ever since, I would never have predicted that that would happen that way. And I’m glad it did.”

Green said he routinely talks about how UNL — the state’s flagship land-grant university with intensive research departments — is the DNA of Nebraska. 

“It’s really endless, if that makes sense, in the way that the university impacts the state and has been doing that for 154 years,” Green said. 

Looking to the future 

As for his retirement, Green is looking forward to having more time for his and his family’s personal lives. Three of his four adult children live in Nebraska with their families, and Green said they have no plans to leave Lincoln.  

“We’re leaving this role, but we’re not leaving the University of Nebraska,” Green said. “We will always be a part of it, and it will be a part of us.”

As Green and his wife take on the role of supporting from the sidelines, Green said they will continue to cheer UNL on in every respect — academically and socially. 

Going forward, Drake said he’s hoping to see a leader that is a catalyst for change, who emphasizes inclusive excellence and shared governance at the university.

“What I think it boils down to is you want someone who can really make a difference in the state but who has the personality and leadership to guide us through troubling troubles and successes,” Drake said.

Pechous said the next chancellor will have some pretty big shoes to fill. 

Green said both he and his wife have enjoyed almost every minute of their time giving back to and serving the University of Nebraska. 

“I just can’t even begin to express how proud I am of the institution and what a pleasure it’s been to serve. You don’t get the opportunity every day to give back to something of a place that is so much a part of who you are,” Green said. “That’s kind of a dream come true.”