‘Honor of a lifetime:’ Doug Kristensen reflects on 22 years as UNK chancellor

May 29, 2024, 6 a.m. ·

Chancellor Kristensen at Graduation
UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen poses for a photo at a graduation ceremony. (Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska at Kearney)

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Doug Kristensen stepped onto the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus as chancellor in 2002. He was tasked with unifying the students, faculty and Kearney community, as well as fixing the buildings on campus.

“You showed up, and you begin to appreciate the campus for what it really is,” Kristensen said. “For me, that was not hard work. You didn’t need to convince me that this was a really, really good place to be. We just needed to have somebody who could stand up and be a cheerleader a little bit, and somebody who would defend us and speak well of us at every turn.”

Making the campus look nicer was a priority during Kristensen’s entire 22-year tenure, but he said he thinks he got it done.

State Senator Chancellor Kristensen
Before he was UNK's chancellor, Doug Kristensen was the state senator representing Kearney. (Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska at Kearney)

Before he was chancellor, Kristensen was one of the state senators who helped bring what was then Kearney State College into the University of Nebraska system in 1989. The Nebraska Legislature passed the bill that year, but the college didn’t join the system until 1991 because the bill was challenged in the Nebraska Supreme Court.

When Kristensen took over as chancellor, he said there were people who were still skeptical about Kearney joining the NU system.

“There was quite a bit of turmoil on campus and decisions about, ‘Should we have come into the university, should we have not,'" he said. "Questioning the leadership of the campus was high. I think there was just a general uncertainty and dysfunction, if you will, to the campus.”

While some questioned the decision, others saw the positive in it. Peter Longo has been a political science professor at UNK since 1988. He said joining the NU system was the best thing to happen for the campus.

“We truly were a comprehensive university being Kearney State College, and so our aspirations were to greater serve the public,” Longo said. “We thought by belonging to the university system, we would have greater opportunity to not only serve central Nebraska, but to serve all of Nebraska.”

The two met when Kristensen was a state senator. They worked together on a Nebraska Constitutional Revision Commission.

“Well, the first impression is he's really easy person to like,” Longo said. “he has a great ability to listen, and then he also has a great ability to mend fences. For instance, on the Constitutional Revision Commission, he always could take in the various conversations and kind of bring people to a common ground.”

Kristensen used those senator skills as chancellor in several partnerships with other Nebraska campuses.

In 2015, the Health Sciences Education Complex opened at Kearney in collaboration with the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The partnership expanded UNK’s nursing program, and it also enabled the Kearney campus to implement several new medical programs.

Kristensen said he spent Christmas break with Charlie Bicak, who was senior vice chancellor at the time. They drew up plans for the Health Sciences Education Complex, and Kristensen went to the UNMC chancellor at the time, Harold Mauer, to present the idea.

“Hal got a little confused and thought that we were going to try to compete with him, and he threw me out of his office, told me to leave,” Kristensen said. “We got that disagreement solved on my way back to Kearney that day, and I turned around literally.”

Chancellor Kristensen Groundbreaking
UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen speaks at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new building. (Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska at Kearney)

Kristensen said that since that day, UNMC has been a great partner. But that first building was the start of something new.

“The first building went up, and it was an experiment, if you will,” Kristensen said. “Can you educate kids in rural Nebraska, and will they stay in rural Nebraska for those health care professions? And, you know, the answer was a resounding yes. The cohorts of the building filled up quickly. We were full almost from the very beginning.”

That partnership between the campuses is continuing with a new Rural Health Education building opening in 2025. All of the programs offered at the UNMC campus in Omaha will also be offered at this new building in Kearney, except dentistry.

That building will be named after Kristensen: The Douglas A. Kristensen Rural Health Complex. Although, Kristensen cares more about what these programs will do for the state.

“It will change rural Nebraska, it'll change it forever,” Kristensen said. “We're going to be educating physicians here, pharmacists — my guess is in the not too distant future, dentistry will come — behavioral health, public health, we're going to expand nursing again, allied health is going to offer more of their subspecialties, things like genetic counseling and respite therapy.”

Longo said these healthcare education expansions are one of Kristensen’s greatest accomplishments during his tenure.

“It’s a totally innovative, and aspirational for other states to look at what occurred between UNMC and UNK and say, ‘Here’s a really progressive way in which we can solve our rural health needs,’” Longo said.

Temo Molina was the UNK student body president and student regent this past year. With the new healthcare programs and building, he said students will see Kristensen’s legacy.

“It's all those sorts of things that when you're students, you don't really think about those projects as they're happening or who's in charge of them, but students are going to appreciate them,” Molina said. “It will be because of him.”

Kristensen also supported a partnership with the law school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The Kearney Law Opportunities Program, or KLOP, was created from a need for more lawyers in rural Nebraska.

“We're just now starting to see those first graduates come out and come into rural Nebraska. I think this is the first year, so I think that will serve us very well,” Kristensen said. “But that's sort of the mission of UNK, what do we do to meet the needs of our area?”

Kristensen said there was a balance between creating programs to meet those needs, and also finding the money to keep the college going. In his 22 years leading, he said there were budget reductions in 18 of them.

“If we have to do reductions, it's going to have to come in the form of people,” Kristensen said. “That's really hard, particularly in a campus this size where you know everybody. They're your friends. They're not doing anything wrong. You just don't have enough money to keep everything afloat.”

Last year, UNK cut three academic programs, including theatre. Molina, who will be a senior this year at UNK, said even when the university was facing those cuts, Kristensen kept his focus on students.

“The way that he was looking at the situation was thinking about how it was going to impact students, and what decisions would impact the least number of students,” Molina said.

The university is starting the search for a new UNK chancellor. Kristensen said whoever takes over next should spend the first few years learning the campus.

“I don't think it's enough to say, ‘Oh, I'm just gonna do what Doug Kristensen did.’ I don't think that's good for the institution. I think for a while, that's probably okay,” Kristensen said. “But I think that what really needs to happen is someone who comes in and says, ‘I'm going to be here five to 10 years, and I'm going to invest the first two years to learn what our capabilities are, where things are good, where things are bad, and then devise a plan on how to move forward and do new things.”

For Kristensen, the students were the best part of the job. And for a few years, two of those students were Kristensen’s own daughters. They both got their undergraduate degrees at UNK.

Chancellor Kristensen's Family
UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen poses with his wife and two daughters. Both of his daughters received their undergraduate degree from UNK. (Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska at Kearney)

“They both said, ‘You know what? We know UNK so well. This is where we think we can be successful. We think this is where we can make a difference. And despite the fact that dad's a little too visible, we'll deal with that,’” Kristensen said.

He said through all the ups and downs, it’s been his honor to see all the students grow at UNK.

“I just wish people could see what I see every day, that I see students who are respectful, appreciative of their education,” Kristensen said. “I see students who want to go out and make a positive difference. They question. They probe. They're trying to decide ‘Why do I think the way I think,’ so they look at things differently than mom and dad did. That's not bad. That's actually pretty healthy. I get to see that happen every day here.”

Although Kristensen won’t be chancellor starting next month, he’ll still be around. He’s ready to cheer on the next generation of Kearney leaders.

"It is absolutely the honor of a lifetime to get to do this," Kristensen said about his time as chancellor.