Ronnie Green’s arc from Virginia farm boy to first-generation college student to 20th chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has been, in his words, surreal.
UNL is the place that Green said launched his family on a professional and personal journey “beyond our wildest dreams” over the course of nearly four decades.
But after nearly seven years as the campus’ top leader, Green, 61, announced he’ll step down next year.
The announcement was made in a video emailed to UNL students, faculty and staff Tuesday morning, where Green appeared alongside his wife, Jane.
“Today, we are sharing the news of our plan that I will retire from the role of chancellor at the end of June 2023 or when my successor is in place for a seamless transition,” he said.
Previously the vice chancellor and vice president of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Green was appointed chancellor in 2016.
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His tenure has seen a global pandemic that disrupted two academic years, budget ups and downs, and on-campus incidents that have put UNL in the crossfire of the nation’s culture wars.
UNL’s enrollment surpassed 26,000 students for the first time in 2018-19 during Green’s tenure before falling to a 10-year low this year. The state’s flagship campus has also recorded rising graduation rates, particularly among students who earn a degree in four years.
He has also presided over UNL as it has seen a 31% increase in research spending over the past decade, and overseen more than $1 billion invested in campus construction projects since 2019.
Green asked the university to reflect back on its 150 years as a land grant institution in 2019, as well as to look forward to the next quarter-century for how UNL might address the most pressing challenges of the future.
He has also navigated the university through intense protests by students against racism and sexual assault on campus, censure from a national academic group, and political jabs from elected officials.
Throughout it all, Green said the opportunity to lead a place like UNL has been “almost too surreal to believe,” adding he had turned down offers from other universities along the way.
“It has been a distinct calling, privilege, honor and our greatest pleasure to serve the university,” Green said.
The decision to step away has been in the works for more than a year, Green told the Journal Star in an interview Monday, after Green hit a personal milestone that has weighed on his mind.
Green turned 60 in the summer of 2021, surpassing the age of his father, who died of cancer at the age of 59. Green’s father, who grew crops and raised Angus cattle in the Blue Ridge Mountains, didn’t get to enjoy his own retirement or his growing family, he said.
Even as Green prepared to “charge ahead” in his duties — he said he was energized by a 2021 leadership retreat at Mahoney State Park with UNL’s top administrators — he was also beginning to discuss with his family when the right time to step back might be.
The chancellorship of an institution like UNL is “exciting and exhilarating,” but can also often be “taxing on our physical and mental batteries,” he said.
UNL’s challenges — academic, extracurricular, financial, political and cultural — aren’t unique in higher education, but they require commitment, he said, and over the following months, the reflection and discussions centered on how long Green’s commitment should continue.
Green hinted at the topic at his state of the university address in late September, when he said becoming the longest-tenured member of the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors this January had given him time to think about “the persistence of leadership in today’s higher education landscape.”
Ultimately, Green made the decision to step aside at the end of the school year, giving the university time to look for his replacement, and allowing the new leader to assume office in a new academic and biennial budget year.
“I know it’s the right time for me,” he said. “I know I’m ready to retire. I know I’m ready to do the next thing.”
NU President Ted Carter, in a statement Tuesday, said the Greens have “a deep love” for the university, its students, faculty, staff and Nebraskans who are “part of this special extended family.”
“We owe them a debt of gratitude for answering the call to serve UNL over the past 13 years,” Carter said. “This is a well-earned decision for them and I am happy knowing they will soon get more time with each other and their growing family.”
Rep. Mike Flood, a former state senator from Norfolk, thanked Green in a statement, and extended his “best wishes” to the Greens on their next chapter.
“Looking to the future, UNL’s next chancellor will lead the university’s flagship campus at a pivotal moment as the state seeks to take advantage of new research opportunities that can grow Lincoln while helping agriculture and our state’s entire economy thrive,” Flood said.
The 1st District congressman said Nebraska’s federal delegation “will keep fighting for those opportunities to build an even brighter future for the university and the next generation in the years to come.”
And Regent Tim Clare of Lincoln, who will chair the NU Board of Regents in 2023, said the Greens “led with their hearts.”
“I’m very grateful they answered the call to serve,” Clare said. “It’s a hard job, but they’ve got a deep love for students, for the university and for Nebraska, and I think that’s always been obvious.”
Green said he will continue in a behind-the-scenes role at the university for one year, as the NU system seeks to raise $3 billion to support students and faculty, academic and research programs, while continuing to serve on boards and other organizations.
In 2024, Green will step back completely. He and Jane will stay in Lincoln — “this is our home,” he said — but won’t remain on the faculty or in any other official university capacity.
The separation will mark a new chapter in a nearly 40-year relationship Green has had with UNL.
A first-generation college student and recipient of a Pell Grant, Green graduated from Virginia Tech University and Colorado State University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in animal science before he enrolled in a doctoral program at UNL in 1985.
It was “the place where the leaders in his field were working,” he told UNL faculty when interviewing for the chancellor position in early 2016.
At Nebraska, in addition to a degree in animal breeding and genetics, Green met and fell in love with “Husker Jane.” The two were married a year later.
“Little did we know that it was the genesis of a nearly 40-year deep and abiding love with and for this great institution for us as a couple and ultimately a family,” Jane Green said in the video.
After graduating from UNL, Green taught for six years at Texas Tech University before joining the animal science faculty at Colorado State.
He then shifted into the private sector, working at a company called Future Beef that would later go out of business and declare bankruptcy, before returning once more to the public sector, conducting research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Green also worked as senior global director of technical services for animal genomics for Pfizer until he was recruited by UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman and other Husker alumni to become leader of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources in 2010.
Over the next five years, Green led IANR, until he was tapped once again by Perlman to become interim senior vice chancellor for academic affairs — the campus’ chief academic officer — following the retirement of Ellen Weissinger.
Following Perlman’s retirement, Green was selected by then-NU President Hank Bounds over three other finalists to become UNL’s top administrator on April 6, 2016.
He was formally installed as chancellor a year to the day later — April 6, 2017 — the start of what would be the longest stay in any job of his professional career.
When he leaves after the 2023 spring commencement, his 21st as chancellor, Green will have congratulated more than 36,000 students who have graduated with degrees from UNL.
Photos: UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green through the years