‘A new standard among flagships’: Rodney Bennett named priority candidate for UNL chancellor

LINCOLN – University of Nebraska System President Ted Carter announced today that following a national search, he has named Rodney D. Bennett, a 30-year veteran of higher education with a track record of growing research, student success and impactful partnerships, as the priority candidate for the next chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Rodney Bennett
Rodney Bennett

Bennett most recently served for nearly a decade as president of the University of Southern Mississippi, a comprehensive public research institution that enrolls 14,000 students across multiple campuses. During his presidency, Bennett brought Southern Miss into the top tier of research institutions, delivered improved student outcomes, invested in faculty and high-growth academic programs, and stabilized the budget through fiscally conservative management – all qualities that Carter said made Bennett the right person at the right time to take the helm at UNL.

“We launched this search with a goal of finding the right leader who could articulate an ambitious vision for Nebraska’s flagship university. Dr. Rodney Bennett is that leader,” Carter said.

“At every turn during his impressive career, Dr. Bennett has made his institution stronger than when he arrived. He is a proven and gifted leader, an exceptional relationship-builder, and he knows from personal experience that higher education is nothing less than a transformative force in a student’s life. Rodney recognizes that Nebraska and our world need UNL to be a leading driver of opportunity, discovery and economic growth, and I believe he will chart the path to get us there.”

Ted Carter
Ted Carter

Carter thanked the search committee, chaired by College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources Dean Tiffany Heng-Moss, for its diligent work, as well as the many Nebraskans who offered input on the qualities they wanted to see in the next chancellor.

Bennett said: “The more I learn about the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the more excited I get about the opportunities for this university to help shape the future of higher education. As I have heard President Carter say, our industry is at a crucial juncture. The challenges we face are real, but with unapologetically bold leadership, the right teams in place, and an unwavering focus on our foundational priorities of teaching, research and service, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln can set a new standard of excellence among flagship universities.

“I am humbled by this opportunity, and I look forward to listening to and learning from UNL students, faculty, staff and stakeholders in the weeks ahead.”

As Southern Mississippi’s president from 2013 to 2022, Bennett led the university’s reclassification from a Carnegie R2 to an R1 university, signaling its growth in research prestige and funding. That designation made USM one of only 14 R1 institutions in the country that also compete at the NCAA Division I level and maintain accreditation in all four major areas of the arts. Bennett also brought a conservative approach to USM’s budget management, meeting or exceeding all new budgetary metrics set by its board.

Additionally, Bennett improved the academic quality of the student body during his tenure; expanded high-demand programs in engineering, ocean science, business, cybersecurity, nursing and other areas; and elevated technology transfer efforts.

Recognizing that communities are stronger and economic growth is more prosperous when all individuals have affordable access to quality education, Bennett invested in programs to support student recruitment, retention and outcomes, including for the 30% of USM students who are first-generation. His efforts led to declines among students who earned D’s, F’s or withdrawals in science and history courses, and USM’s overall six-year graduation rate improved.

Bennett invested in new faculty positions in high-growth areas and increased the average salary for full-time faculty, oversaw $300 million in facilities work, and launched the largest fundraising campaign in USM’s history in 2022. He was a strong champion of USM’s Division I athletics program, investing in new facilities and programs to support student-athletes, including a dedicated mental health counselor to serve student-athletes. During Bennett’s tenure, USM student-athletes earned their highest overall grade point average in recorded history, a 3.1 across all sports.

Prior to his role at Southern Mississippi, Bennett served at the University of Georgia for over a decade, ultimately as an associate professor and vice president for student affairs. In that role, he was the senior administrator for student programs and services for Georgia’s 34,000-plus students. He oversaw $150 million in capital projects and made key staff and programmatic investments in extracurriculars, mental health programs and other areas to better support students from all walks of life.

Previously, Bennett was the dean of students at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and associate dean of student life at Middle Tennessee State University.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communication, a master’s degree in educational administration and a specialist in educational administration from Middle Tennessee State. He earned his Doctor of Education from Tennessee State University.

Bennett and his wife, Temple, are the parents of two adult daughters, Colby and Logan.

As required by state law, Bennett’s candidacy now undergoes a 30-day vetting period, beginning today, that will include a series of public sessions during which members of the UNL community and the news media can meet Bennett and ask questions. The schedule for the open forums is being finalized now and will be released in the coming days. Members of the public are invited to submit feedback about Bennett’s candidacy anytime during the 30-day period at www.nebraska.edu/unl-chancellor-search.

At the conclusion of the vetting period, if Carter deems appropriate, he will bring Bennett’s candidacy to the Board of Regents at its June 22 meeting for consideration. If approved by the board, Bennett would become the first person of color to become UNL chancellor.

The next chancellor will succeed current Chancellor Ronnie Green, who is retiring after seven years in the role.