Trustees | Trusteeship

Dave Heineman’s name recognition, connections could prompt other candidates for NU’s top job to back

OMAHA WORLD HERALD   |  May 27, 2014 by Kate Howard Perry and Paul Hammel

When Gov. Dave Heineman went public Wednesday with his application to become University of Nebraska president, many other potential candidates likely tossed theirs in the trash.

The term-limited governor launched his campaign with the NU Board of Regents on Tuesday, emailing them a letter on his official letterhead about his intent to seek the university presidency. He followed that with a Wednesday press conference in the governor’s hearing room where he discussed his qualifications.

Big names like Heineman bring big spheres of influence, experts in leadership searches say, and that can dissuade potential candidates who don’t want to go up against a popular politician.

Heineman also comes with strong ties to many regents, with a history of receiving campaign donations or giving endorsements to six of the eight who will make the decision.

“Sometimes the perception of other candidates is that when someone that popular or that big of a name enters the search, they will work their way to at least being a finalist or appointed as president,” said Jamie Ferrare, principal of AGB Search, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that conducts searches for higher education leadership. “I don’t know if that’s always the case, to be fair to the governor, but it causes some candidates to think twice.”

Heineman, on Wednesday, said he made his interest public because of news media interest and his belief in “open and transparent government.” He rejected the idea that others will be discouraged from applying.

But Howard Hawks, chairman of the NU Board of Regents, said he believes that is probably the case—and NU’s search firm representatives told him they think so too.

Candidates like Heineman have the right to share their plans, Hawks said, but he expects fewer applicants as a result. The search firm expects to identify a group of finalists by the end of this year.

“We’re so committed to an open, fair process, which some other institutions are not, and I think there will be some counterbalance there to someone well known throughout the state putting his hat in the ring,” Hawks said.

Hawks said he met with Heineman May 19 at Heineman’s request and explained the process. Hawks said they did not discuss his plans to make his candidacy public, and that he and other regents have committed to not discussing specific candidates until they get to their final four.

Heineman’s public declaration of his candidacy is a concern for Gerard Harbison, a UNL professor and member of the Academic Planning Committee. 

“He could have done this quietly without limiting the ability of the university to attract another candidate, but he didn’t,” Harbison said. “You have to ask: Why didn’t he?”

Harbison said he thinks the governor’s move has degraded the process and put the board in a difficult position.At Florida State University, a powerful politician recently entered the search for a president, and he ended up the only candidate interviewed.

Once State Sen. John Thrasher entered the field, interest dropped off to the point that university trustees are only interviewing Thrasher, a move that hasn’t gone over well with faculty members looking for strong academic credentials. The trustees will vote next month on Thrasher, and if he isn’t hired, the search will resume.

“It just doesn’t make any sense from my perspective,” said Jennifer Proffitt, FSU professor and president of the university’s chapter of United Faculty of Florida.

A potential positive to Heineman’s public candidacy is that other candidates would have to really weigh whether their skills are attractive to the institution, according to Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

“It might well discourage candidates who don’t have a strong commitment, who are simply shopping around, instead of those very serious about wanting to lead the university,” Poliakoff said.

If he’s selected for the post, Heineman said he knows his job would be to “execute the vision” laid out by the NU Board of Regents.

He would not seek to change current NU policies that he has opposed in the past, Heineman said, including charging in-state tuition rates for children of illegal immigrants, allowing stem-cell research, and providing job benefits to same-sex couples.

The 66-year-old conservative Republican is a former Army Ranger with a bachelor’s degree from West Point. He served as state treasurer and lieutenant governor before becoming governor nine years ago when Mike Johanns resigned to become U.S. agriculture secretary.

Heineman has developed many ties to decision-makers during his long political career—including those selecting the new NU president.

Six of the eight current regents have contributed to Heineman’s election committee, and he appointed two of those to the board—Regents Bob Phares of North Platte and Rob Schafer of Beatrice.

Heineman also used to work for one of the regents, Hal Daub of Omaha, serving as chief of staff for Daub when he was a congressman in the 1980s.

Last month the governor hit the campaign trail with Schafer, who is running to keep the seat Heineman appointed him to last year. Schafer’s opponent, Steve Glenn, who led in the primary results, is also a past contributor to Heineman.

The governor endorsed Regent Tim Clare—who was running unopposed—in his most recent election, and Clare contributed to Heineman in 2009.

Hawks has supported the governor’s campaigns by hosting fundraisers and making personal donations. His company, Tenaska, has also supported Heineman’s campaigns.

All told, Hawks and his firm gave Heineman $11,274 during his first run for governor in 2006.

Phares did not return a call for comment. Pillen deferred questions about the search to Hawks. Schafer, Clare, Daub and Hawks said their history with Heineman wouldn’t affect the search.

“This isn’t about friendship or associations or anything else,” Daub said. “It’s about being very objective. … We have a 20-plus person reviewing committee, and there isn’t anyone among those groups of people that’s going to dictate the choice.”

Hawks said he and his wife hosted two fundraisers during Heineman’s first bid in 2006. But he said their personal interactions have been limited, and his political activity has no bearing on the board’s decision.

“I can only speak for myself, but the fact that I supported him for governor and held fundraising for him as a governor will have absolutely zero to do with how I compare him as a candidate,” Hawks said.

Hawks and Schafer sit on the 13-member selection committee tasked with choosing finalists for the president’s job, as do two other regents who have not contributed to Heineman’s campaigns: Kent Schroeder of Kearney and Bob Whitehouse of Papillion.

Also on the committee is Steve Nelson of Axtell, the president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, which has endorsed and consistently contributed to Heineman’s campaigns.

Clare, Phares, Daub and Pillen also sit on a separate 21-member presidential search outreach and advisory committee in charge of doing outreach and soliciting feedback involving the position.

Reaction to Heineman’s announcement was mixed in business and legislative circles.

Lincoln businessman Tam Allan said he was among the people who urged Heineman to run. Allan said that as a “successful leader of a very large organization,” the governor is well qualified to run NU.

State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, a leading Democrat in the Legislature, said that Heineman’s leadership hasn’t always been stellar, pointing to problems at the Beatrice State Development Center and the state’s child welfare system.

“If he gets it, it will certainly look like payback rather than a thorough, thoughtful selection process,” Nordquist said.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More