NU president priority candidate discusses leadership values, vision for university

April 23, 2024, 5 a.m. ·

University of Nebraska Medical Center Chancellor Jeffrey Gold (File photo courtesy of UNMC).

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The University of Nebraska named Dr. Jeffrey Gold as the priority candidate for the president position. He currently serves as the provost and executive vice president for the university system, and is the University of Nebraska Medical Center chancellor. Gold is undergoing a 30-day vetting process. He spoke with Nebraska Public Media’s Jolie Peal about his vision if hired, getting the university back into the Association of American Universities and more.

JOLIE PEAL: To start off, what made you decide to apply for the president position?

JEFFREY GOLD: Well, it was a very thoughtful decision with a lot of feedback from dozens, if not maybe even many dozens of people. As I'm sure our audience knows, I've had the opportunity to live and work here in Nebraska now for just over 10 years. I became a Nebraskan in the very winter of 2014, and have had the privilege of serving as the chancellor here at the med center. I've had the privilege of serving as chancellor of UNO. And I've had the privilege of serving as the executive vice president and provost of our system. But you know, more importantly than my titles, I've had the opportunity to work and serve and meet and collaborate with small and large companies, farmers and ranchers, hospital systems, health care providers, community colleges, state colleges, all of the campuses of the University of Nebraska system. And at the time that I got that fateful call from Ted Carter back in August, that prompted a lengthy set of discussions, of course, with my wife and my children. But it also prompted many discussions with my fellow chancellor's, it prompted discussions, as I say, with business leaders, philanthropists, legislators, the governor and so many others, and decided that one, I certainly had the enthusiasm and vision to want to do this. I certainly believe that my knowledge and experience here in Nebraska, relatively not completely, but relatively uniquely positions me to be successful, just because of my time here, who I know and the opportunities that I've had. And also I have, you know, a tremendous vision for the future of public higher education in our nation, and I'm excited to have an opportunity to roll up my sleeves and work with our communities to turn their dreams and their vision and my vision together into a reality.

PEAL: Can you talk a bit about what that vision is?

GOLD: Well, you know, I would have to set the stage to say that the challenges, which means also the opportunities that we have in higher education, particularly in public higher education, are really unprecedented, I believe. And that's an easy thing to say, but our audience probably knows that it's not just a question of funding, meaning taxpayers support elasticity of tuition, and ongoing cost of bricks and mortar and maintenance of that bricks and mortar, the cost of maintaining a quality faculty and delivering on the promise of world class higher education. But there's also even more serious questions that young women and young men have, and perhaps even their families have as well, about what is the value proposition of that, you know, at the end of the day, if tuition costs a certain number of dollars, and a certain number of taxpayer dollars go into it. Of course, there's always a magic mix of philanthropy, grants and contracts, research, productivity, etc. When you put all of that together, does it really produce the desired goal that it did, at least I believe it did, when I made the decision to go to college, and frankly, when my wife and I made the decision that we wanted our children to go to college as well. You know, just reflecting on myself, I, you know, I'm an example of the benefit of that I'm a first generation student, whose parents grew up at the time of the Great Depression and were it not for the affordability and access that I had to go to college through a combination of scholarship and loans and work study. I never would have received an undergraduate degree. As you may know, I'm a product of Cornell's College of Engineering. And I would not have had the opportunity to go to medical school and, again, have the opportunity to spend over 20 years practicing the art and the science of medicine. So I still believe and I think if you look at the statistics, the value proposition of higher education is definitely still there. In terms of quality of life, even life expectancy, health, earnings, productivity, and so many other areas of being a fulfilled and a productive citizen of our state and our communities. However, those are varying differences of opinion in that area. And I think the changes that have been occurring and the changes that need to continue to occur is to look very carefully at what that value proposition is, and see what can be done should be done or must be done to enhance and strengthen that value proposition and then make absolutely sure that the next generation of students and their families understand that value proposition and are enthusiastic about embracing it, and not just say, just from a financial will I pay to go to college. But more importantly, what comes out at the other end, other than just a diploma with a degree on it. And, frankly, frequently significant amount of student debt. What needs to come out at the end of it is a value that says, “I can have a fulfilling life, I can live longer.” And interestingly, the data shows that college graduates kids are healthier and have more productivity, and maybe because it's self perpetuating that parents that have had that opportunity, believe and want the same thing for their children. You know, there are unquestionably naysayers and people that have different opinions on this subject. But as I've criss-crossed the state of Nebraska over the last decade, there is no question in my mind that Nebraskans understand the value of higher education. They understand the value of the University of Nebraska as our public university system, serving both rural and urban communities. And it doesn't make any difference whether they're a farmer or rancher, whether they repair cars, or hang wallpaper, or whether they do open heart surgery, are our next generation of engineers and accountants, journalists, philosophers, and everything in between, that the value of that higher education is incredible, or maybe even, in my humble opinion, priceless.

PEAL: How do you balance trying to make college more affordable and helping students get to the University of Nebraska with the fact that there's budget cuts and these needs to make up money still?

GOLD: You know, I've been involved in public higher education for several decades. And I frankly cannot remember a year where we were not trimming the budget for one reason or another. And it's not that the small changes in tuition or in state share of instruction or grants and contracts, philanthropy don't help us greatly, but the inflationary costs of delivering quality, higher education, underscore quality, higher education, have tended to exceed at least for the 20 plus years that I've been sitting in a leadership position in public higher education. So to me, it's about growth. And the way and what I mean by that is just like it is in investment strategy, you want to diversify your portfolio? Well, we want to diversify our sources of revenue. Sure, we want to be sure that we have reasonable tuition. We of course, want to make sure that the legislature and the governor's office, but more importantly, the taxpayers of the rural and urban communities of Nebraska see the value of what we bring to the table in terms of not just our products, our students, but in terms of our research, patents, copyrights, performances, attendance at athletic events, so many things of that nature, which add to the richness of the communities that we serve. But are we also spinning off enough of our own intellectual property? We have phenomenal research engine, here at the med center, at UNL, and, frankly, in all of our campuses to one degree or another. But is that turning into new corporations? Is that turning into transfer of what we call intellectual property? Are we optimizing our relationship with the federal government in terms of grants and contracts, and by, you know, here at the med center, we've really expanded the work that we do for the Department of Defense. They've expanded the work we do for the Department of Health and Human Services. We do a lot of work with the veterans administration. And you know, these are corporate relationships that allow us to garner resources from different sources, which can then be mixed with what we do to continue to make education affordable. But perhaps even more importantly than that, it creates unique opportunities for our learners and for our faculty to work with the Department of Defense to work with the Department of Health and Human Services and so many other departments to create new and unique opportunities for our students, to create research, and creativity, opportunities for our faculty, and, frankly, to bring new and better economic development and resources into the community, you know, you think about it. I think the study was done several years ago that in aggregate between all of the affiliations of UNMC, and the med center, and the rest of the University of Nebraska, we have had, I think it was in December of 2021, if I'm not mistaken, that the overall economic impact of the University of Nebraska system was in excess of $10 billion. You know, if you do the math on that, I think when we did it back then it was about 8%, of the total, gross domestic product of the state in Nebraska. So we are a very formidable economic engine, in addition to an engine that produces you know, degrees and intellectual property and does cutting edge research. And by the way, you know, plays football 12 weekends a year, and hopefully, this year, as I am very confident, we’ll have a strong winning record.

PEAL: You brought up how the university is this huge thing, it's more than just degrees. And I remember in your public forums, you talked about as a way to get, especially students in the western part of the state to come, that there are already kind of some programs out there, Can you talk a bit about what's already out there, that you talked about visiting Scottsbluff and Gering, and then kind of what's already out there, and then what your, what you would hope to improve isn't the right word…

GOLD: …continue to support and grow…

PEAL: Yeah.

GOLD: I mean, you know, at the end of the day, the university, in addition to producing graduates has, as I said, a large role in economic development for the state. One has to understand that there are 44 plus million acres of agriculture in the state of Nebraska, you know. The agricultural complex, as it is referred to, is somewhere in the vicinity of $100 billion a year of, of tremendous important economic stability, for the economy of the state of Nebraska. And so our extension services, which touch all 93 counties of the state, are a tremendous resource in interacting not just with farmers and ranchers, but with bankers, with the healthcare industries in those counties, etc. And those are areas that you know, that's a network of locations, that we can expand, continue to grow and better serve those communities. But you know, I was 10 years here at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, we are truly a 500-mile wide campus as well. While I'm speaking to you today from the Omaha campus, we have programs in Gering and in Scottsbluff, we have programs in Kearney. As you may know, we are adding another large health science education facility in Kearney that'll bring our total enrollment just in Kearney to almost 640 students in medicine, nursing, pharmacy, many of the allied health professions of social work, several others. And that's the way that we will produce the results that we need to serve both the rural and the urban communities of the state. And you know, I'll tell you an interesting thing. When I first arrived here, almost a decade ago, we did a study to look at the needs of rural Nebraska, more focus through the eyes of healthcare and healthcare education, professional development. We did it in a very similar way with a very different group of people to look at the urban communities that we serve. And at the end of the day, when we brought those together, while the geographic sites were very different, the needs were almost identical. And they were all about workforce, access to clinical trials, the need to have sustainability of clear workforce development in the sense of large numbers of communities that were underserved in terms of healthcare professionals and those that support the healthcare professionals, continuing education, and areas that you may not, you know, directly connect to healthcare, such as information technology, legal services, accounting, all the things that you know, these rural and urban communities need, you know. We're a state of, you know, just over 1.9 million people serving, you know, 500-mile wide dimension, which is not the easiest thing to manage. And so we've been focused tremendously on the use of technology, for purposes of communication, for purposes of supporting services. You know, it would be really nice to have full and robust services in every small and large community in the state, and I don't just relate to healthcare, but to much broader needs of the state in terms of what our extension services can do, the so called digital agriculture explosion that is occurring across the nation, by the way, which our university is leading. But we can't be everything to everybody in every community. And that's where technology comes in and the use of a high density bandwidth and the internet, the use of telecommunications, to be sure that we can reach people where they are, where they live, where they work, and we can provide a full spectrum of services. So I'm really excited about the opportunity to blend the rural and urban community needs in the future. And by the way, to do it so well, that every other state in the country is going to be envious of it.

PEAL: I want to talk a bit about the AAU. How do you see the university getting back into there? What kind of steps need to be taken to get the university back?

GOLD: The way you phrase the question is very important to understand that because you say not to get into the AAU, but to get back into the AAU. And so what our audience may or may not know is that we were a founding partner of the AAU, and indeed back in 2011, we were summarily asked to step out. And since that time, we have not been a member. There are currently 71 members of the AAU. Interestingly, 57 of the 71 have large academic medical centers such as UNMC as part of their integrated structure, the remainder do not, that the remainder would be institutions such as MIT and Caltech and such institutions. However, there are some logistical things that can be done such as the way we report the research funding between UNMC, faculty awards, recognition, grants and contracts, publications, books, citations, impact factor, those sorts of things. And then there are other areas that we need to focus in particularly on the undergraduate campus, which would be predominantly on the Lincoln campus, which is to look at six year graduation rates, particularly in Pell eligible students and look at the differences between Pell eligible and non Pell eligible students, which of course, is code for students that come from challenging financial backgrounds that really need Pell support in order to attain that college education. To be very frank, there's never been an institution re-admitted into the AAU, and so that even the concept of doing so would be a groundbreaking concept. It's not to say it's not possible. And it's not to say that we are not going to roll up our sleeves, and having sat in the provost office for the last several years, I can tell you we get up in the morning and go to sleep at night, and we don't think about the three letters, AAU. But we certainly think about research grants and contracts, faculty awards and recognition, books and chapters and publications. And we spend a huge amount of time thinking about what it means to get our students to graduation. You know, I'm a very strong believer that we admit a graduating class, not an entering class. And we have to meet our students where they are and make sure we understand what their needs are academically, financially. You know, we talked a lot about in some of the town hall meetings, things such as simple as food insecurity, you know. If our students can't figure out what they're going to have for dinner or for breakfast the next day, it's pretty tough to go to class and concentrate on your next exam. And so that's a full spectrum of things that we need to look at as a great university, not just today, but long into tomorrow, in order to fulfill what our mission is, and if that helps us become eligible to be invited back to the AAU that's wonderful. But those are all areas we need to focus on regardless. And of course, just to state the obvious again, it's not like you apply for membership to the AAU, you have to be invited.

PEAL: I know you don't have the job yet, but there's been a lot of new leadership across the university, and we're kind of looking toward new leadership with the UNK chancellor search going on and the new UNL chancellor started last year. How do you plan to center the university if you get the role with all this new leadership?

GOLD: Well, I'm a very firm believer in … let me just back up just for a second. Leadership, particularly at the level of being a chancellor or dean, or should I be fortunate enough to be considered for the presidency of the university, is not a Lifetime Achievement Award. It's not about how long you've been in rank, and you know, you just qualify. It is a set of knowledge and skills that are acquired over a period of time. There are countless books and courses that I have read and taken, individuals that have been my mentors and exemplars of quality leadership. And I've come to appreciate that leadership really only works when there's a strong sense of trust. There's a man named Patrick Lencioni, whose a leadership consultant has written several books on the subject. But the ability to build trust and mutually respectful organization is critical, in order to bring out the best in people because after all, what does leadership really mean? It means bringing out the best in other people, it is not anything about the credits of bringing out the best in the leader. It's about how the people in leadership positions can help our students achieve their dreams, our junior and senior faculty, our staff and our workforce, our administrative teams, and frankly, how to best serve the community. What I've learned a long time ago is that when you serve the community, you serve your organization. So in our case, when you serve the state of Nebraska, you serve the university, and when you serve the university, you serve our campuses, and you serve our colleges and our administrative units, as well. So listening to people, creating a true sense of caring, and believe me, having spent 25 years in the operating room, taking care of people with severe heart disease, I understand the concept of care and caring, and they're two very different things. To deliver world class care is very important. But people don't care what you know, until they know that you care, perhaps a bit overused, phraseology. But it's something I believe in deeply. And my job will be to build that sense of trust and to build that sense of caring to exemplify it every single day, every single meeting, every single phone call, every single email, and create an expectation that we treat our students with both care and caring. We treat our faculty and staff with both care and caring. And certainly, when we interact with the community, rural, urban, in the state, outside of the state, in the Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington, wherever that may be. That has got to be the mantra of what we stand for and what we do in the future. Yeah, there is an absolute and very significant change ongoing in leadership, I understand that. But the whole idea will be to create a sense of stability, a sense of trust and a very strong sense of caring.

PEAL: Those were all my questions. Was there anything else you wanted to say?

GOLD: Only just that I'm really excited and humbled by the opportunity to even be considered. You know, initially, I wasn't sure whether this was the right time for me and for my family. But as time has gone on and the priority candidacy was announced, I have received hundreds and hundreds of emails and texts and letters and phone calls from people, frankly, I haven't heard from for decades from across the country. All the former living presidents of the University of Nebraska system, our federal delegation, current and past, I mean, just endless numbers of very warm and supportive and, of course, realistic communications. You know, there was recently a very prominent article that said being a university president is not just one of, but the toughest job in America today. And it is difficult because there are so many different conflicting forces and views and opinions, ideologies. As we said earlier, the value proposition of higher education is being tested, the economics are to put it mildly, are less than stable. you'd wonder why anybody would really want the job? And the answer is you really have to have a commitment and a passion to try to make the world a better place, and in this case, our world is the state of Nebraska.