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Chancellor Harvey Perlman Passionate About the University of Nebraska, its Future and NU Joining ‘Common Friends’ in the Big Ten

A few years ago, during one of the endless news spasms about the University of Nebraska football program, New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt floated the idea of our profiling the school’s chancellor, Harvey Perlman, who at the time was adroitly handling the latest firing and hiring. As the musical chairs continued playing out it became clear that Perlman was more than the public point man speaking on behalf of the university about these changes, but the orchestrator of these moves. Below is the profile os this man at the top who speaks softly but carries a big stick.

Harvey Perlman
Harvey Perlman

Chancellor Harvey Perlman Passionate About the University of Nebraska, its Future and NU Joining ‘Common Friends’ in the Big Ten

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Most of you probably first laid eyes on University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman in October of 2007.

That’s when his face was all over the media in the wake of his firing Steve Pederson as Nebraska athletic director and hiring Husker coaching legend Tom Osborne to rejoin the Big Red family as the new AD.

Even though by then Perlman had already put in six years as the university’s CEO, chances are his name, much less the position he filled, barely registered with the average Nebraskan. You might have known he was a top NU administrator, but it’s unlikely you could have picked him out of a lineup or identified anything he put his stamp on.

You also probably didn’t know he’s an NU alumnus, as is his wife Susan and their two daughters and their husbands.

“We like to keep it in the family,” he said of this legacy.

It’s unlikely you knew he was previously the longtime dean of NU’s law college. Or that he joined the NU law faculty in 1967 after being mentored in the profession under the legendary Robert Kutak, who cultivated in his protege a love of art.

In 1974 Perlman left NU to teach at the University of Virginia Law School. He returned to NU in 1983 to head up the Nebraska Law College, a position he held for 15 years. He served as the university’s interim chancellor in 2000 before being named chancellor in 2001.

Obviously, much of his life is bound up in the university. Because the chancellor’s job continues to engage him he doesn’t have any plans to step down soon.

“I’m still excited about the possibilities. I care a lot about the university so it’s not an abstraction to me, it’s a passion,” he said from his office in UNL’s Canfield Administration Building

Being a native son, he said, probably opens some doors he might otherwise find closed.

“I think the fact I’m a Nebraskan gives me entree into some circles easier than an outsider would find.”

Perlman kept a low profile until the merry-go-round of athletic directors and football coaches the past 10 years. That’s when he became a focal point of attention. Perhaps for the first time then the power he wields was apparent for all to see. There he was intervening in what had become a circus of speculation and vitriol involving the topsy turvy fortunes of that precious commodity — Husker football. He acted as both architect and messenger for a sea change in NU athletics that continues making waves today.

The added scrutiny  doesn’t much phase him. He knows it comes with the territory, though it can be a bit much.

“I’m used to it by now I guess. I think in part lawyers are trained to handle those kinds of circumstances, so that doesn’t give me any discomfort. The discomfort of being a public figure is probably not when you’re in public but the fact that you’re always in the public eye. I can’t go to the grocery store without people giving me advice about the football team and things like that.

“I never thought I’d be on the sports pages. I didn’t have the athletic talent to get there”

It’s not as though Perlman was invisible before the beleaguered Pederson was let go and the beloved Osborne brought back as the athletic department’s savior. Perlman had, after all, been involved in the machinations that followed Bill Byrne’s departure as AD and the much hyped arrival of native son Pederson. But when Pederson fired head football coach Frank Solich and replaced him with Bill Callahan Perlman was in the background while Pederson was out front. Critics of Pederson would assert it was just more grandstanding and arrogance on display.

Ironically, the unprepossessing Perlman took center stage when he gave Pederson the boot and brought Osborne back into the fold. It’s worked out that Perlman’s returned to the public spotlight since then. First, there was the housecleaning he began with Pederson’s ouster and that Osborne finished by axing Callahan, replacing him with fan favorite Bo Pelini. After the Callahan debacle, it’s certain the Pelini hire didn’t happen without Perlman’s approval.

Then he pushed for the Nebraska State Fair to make way for the Innovation Campus.

More recently, as NU’s Big 12 Conference affiliation grew shaky in the midst of possible league defections and the specter of Texas dominance, Perlman and Osborne teamed up to take NU in a dramatic new direction. Last summer the two men announced the stunning news NU was leaving the contentious Big 12 and joining the solidarity of the Big 10. It turned out the pair had worked feverishly behind the scenes with Big 10 commissioner Jim Delany to petition the conference for NU’s admission. Everything fell into place quicker than anyone anticipated. The switch took many by surprise and the bold move made national headlines.

So it was that the pensive, pin-striped Perlman once more found himself splashed in print and television stories, this time spinning the news of how the Big 10 would be a better cultural fit for NU than the Big 12.

Perlman, a lawyer by training, is expert at parsing words in order to be diplomatic and so he’s careful when explaining why the Big 10 is ultimately a better home for NU.

“Well, at the most fundamental level it’s a feeling on the back of your neck that you’re among common friends, not to suggest we weren’t friendly with the Big 12,” he said.

Perlman feels the Big 10 alliance is a cohesive match because like NU the conference’s other schools are Midwestern public research universities with similar institutional histories and goals when it comes to both academics and athletics .

“When you talk about the Big 12,” he said, “you can’t say that because you’ve got some Midwestern institutions, you’ve got some agriculturally-based land grant institutions, you’ve got Texas, which in many ways is an institution all of its own, with widely divergent reputations. You’ve got Texas Tech, which is different…The schools up and down that corridor are very, very different, so there is not a common culture. And it’s not a bad thing — I mean, they’re all fine institutions — but they’re very different. It’s just that in the Big Ten we just kind of felt that it was (a common culture).”

He acknowledges that NU “will be, next to Northwestern, the smallest institution in the Big 10,” adding, “But we’re still a public research university that fits that environment and that has a good history and tradition of intercollegiate athletics.”

There’s a prestige factor in all this that cannot be discounted because all 11 schools NU is joining are rated among the top academic and research institutions in America, along with most having strong athletic programs.

“Well, I mean you are who you associate with in some respects,” Perlman said, “and so there’s a stature of the Big 10…there’s a kind brand it has in common…”

He said those high standards give NU new avenues for excellence.

“It elevates the opportunities you have. Now we’ve got to take advantage of them, but at least it opens those opportunities. The Big 10 has traditionally had broad institutional cooperation in which it’s focused to provide collaborative activities within the Big 10, which the Big 12 does not.”

When it looked like the Big 12 might lose Texas and other anchor schools, suddenly the conference appeared fragile, which left Nebraska in a vulnerable spot. With things up in the air, Perlman and Osborne were not about to let NU hang in the wind, subject to an uncertain fate, and so they sought a stable new home for the school should the league dissolve.

Nebraska and the Big 10 had always shared a mutual admiration. Bob Devaney thought it a natural marriage years ago, before the Big 8 morphed into the Big 12, and before the Big 10 added Penn State. Then, in 2010, circumstances arose that soon made the prospect of NU being in the Big 10 relevant, even logical. For NU it meant security. For the Big 10 it meant another major player in its family.

“Yes, stability was critical for us because we didn’t have any place to go,” said Perlman. “I mean, we’re here, we have a good brand, that seemed to be clear. I think we could go in many directions, but if we were playing in the Big East for example the burden on our kids and our fans would be terrible. So you sit here and you look and you say, What are your options? There weren’t very many.”

At least not many that made sense or that were congruent with NU’s profile, whereas the Big 10 was a mirror image of the school and offered close proximity.

“Again, the culture fit,” said Perlman. “We seem to be a comfortable fit with the Big10 institutions. There’s some geographic adjacency, and that’s important.”

Perlman’s quest for a more secure footing in the athletic-academic arena was not unlike his wooing back Osborne, the winningest coach in NU history, from retirement to provide a calm center amid a storm of discontent.

“It was a very disruptive time for the program. We had to make a change. I had no hint that he was available or would be interested,” Perlman said of Osborne.

It turned out Osborne was both available and interested. The result was just what Perlman hoped.

“The value Tom brought clearly was stability,” the NU chancellor said.

Perlman said Osborne benefited from having “the confidence” of NU regents, administrators, coaches and student-athletes as well as university-athletic department supporters.

The experience of changing head football coaches and pursuing entry in the Big 10 brought Perlman and Osborne in close contact.

“We’ve built a working relationship that we didn’t have before,” said Perlman. “I think we have respect for each other. We’ve gone through a number of issues together and I think we both recognize we each contribute to getting those issues resolved. He has become a very fine athletic director. He has a good sense of the program beyond football, which was a concern of some, but he’s been very supportive of the range of athletic programs and he’s done a good job of managing the finances” the facilities, the coaches.

Osborne returns the compliment, saying, “I find Harvey Perlman to be someone who is a very bright person who thinks things through and does not say much until he has formulated his thoughts very carefully. He is able to be firm when the situation calls for it and is a good communicator.”

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Some suggest that NU and other schools with big-time athletic programs find themselves in the equivalent of an ever escalating arms race that requires more and more expenditures on sports. When is enough, enough?

The two men, both raised in small Nebraska towns in post-World War Ii America — Perlman in York and Osborne in Hastings — share similar values and experiences based in humility and frugality. Yet they find themselves overseeing mammoth expansion programs and budgets.

“There’s clearly excesses in intercollegiate athletics,” Perlman said. “The idea that we’re competing with other schools and that you have to make investments in order to compete is not one I’m upset about. We’re doing that on the academic side all the time. It’s just not as visible. We’re competing for facilities, we’re competing for faculty. If you’re going to go out and attract top talent you’ve got to pay their price. You have to invest in the facilities.

“It’s a very competitive world in higher education across the board. Athletics is just where the numbers are larger. We’re fortunate here that the athletic department is self-supporting (thanks to enormous football revenues and generous booster donations). We don’t have to use tax dollars or tuition revenues to subsidize the department. In fact, they subsidize the academic side in a variety of different ways, so to that extent it’s hard to say, Let’s not compete. I mean, Nebraska has a position within the constellation of athletic powers, and as long as we’re successful we ought to try and compete.”

Some also question if in building a great university a great athletic department is really necessary.

“You can do it without one,” said Perlman. “In our circumstance I think we’ve achieved a lot of synergies between academics and athletics. Moving into the Big 10 is the clearest example. We wouldn’t have got into the Big 10 were it not for our brand on the athletic side, but we also wouldn’t have got into the Big 10 if we hadn’t had made the progress on the academic side that we’ve made in the last 10 years.”

Perlman points with pride to several advances the school’s made during his tenure, including more research grants, greater international engagement, improved educational programs and a growing enrollment that now exceeds 24,000.

Seal of the University of Nebraska

Image via Wikipedia

He said NU’s influence and reach in areas such as agriculture and engineering extend across the globe.

“We may be small but we’re still a force in the world in terms of our presence in China, India, Africa…”

Sometimes the gains made in academics get obscured by what’s going on with athletics. He said the challenge is that the imprint of athletics “is so loud and prominent every day. The significance is clear — you win or you lose. A lot of the great things that happen on the academic side are not as clear, it’s more indirect, it’s more long term.” He favors “trying to even out the voice within the institution” to create more of a balance between academic and athletic achievement and recognition.

While football revenues and private donations keep NU athletics in the black and competitive with other elite programs, the university’s state-allocated academic operational budget has been subject to almost annual cuts as the state’s coffers have suffered in recent years. In a public address Perlman compared the budget slashing to the torture-execution method known as lingchi or death by a thousand cuts, saying, “I do not think a university can constantly cut its way to greatness.”

He neither wishes to sound like an alarmist nor an unbridled optimist. Instead, like the attorney he is he provides a considered pro and con analysis of the situation.

“I think there are significant cuts we’ve made that have not damaged the university for a variety of reasons. Every businessman will tell you every once in a while a budget cut is not a bad idea, just to be more efficient. Most of our cuts probably haven’t made the university worse off, some probably made it better, but as I’ve said you can’t do that continually and expect to be successful.”

Asked when diminishing returns set in and he answered:

“I don’t know, but there is a point at which quality does suffer. Our policy has been not to reduce the quality of all programs and cut across the board. We have in fact narrowed the scope — we’ve eliminated programs. I’d much rather eliminate a program then mandate, for example, a 4 percent across the board budget cut. You can’t get anywhere doing that. At some point I think you start to do real damage to your university, and more significantly real damage to the state of Nebraska.

“To the extent I cut programs that means the students and graduates of high schools in Nebraska who want that program are going to leave the state. Obviously one of the key needs for the state of Nebraska is to keep young people here, and you’re not going to do that if you continue to cut.”

As a small population state, Nebraska’s particularly impacted by the so-called “brain drain” that’s seen many of its best and brightest high school grads leave to attend college out of state. Perlman said NU’s “doing our part” to reverse the trend.

“I think for the most part we’re meeting that challenge. If you look at the top percentage of high school graduates in Nebraska who stay in the state and come to the university we’ve seen a significant increase in the last 10 years. If you look at non-resident students that are being attracted to the university that’s on a significant increase.”

He said these gains are due to “a lot of hard work by a lot of people across the whole university,” including faculty engaged in the recruiting effort.

Just a few months after NU’s entrance in the Big 10 Perlman noted the school’s enrollment spiked with more enrollees from Big 10 country than ever before.

“Coincidentally we’ve been very successful in trying to build pipelines for undergraduate enrollment in cities that happen to be in the Big 10 (Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, et cetera), and we see an uptick there now that we’re in the Big 10.”

Being in a tradition-rich power conference and having high profile, elite football or basketball teams that consistently win and net national media exposure can and does help in recruiting students.

“It’s not so crazy,” said Perlman. “It has an impact. I think what most people don’t think about is that intercollegiate athletics, particularly football, has such a kind of central place in the culture of America. We shouldn’t be surprised if students looking for a place to get their undergraduate education consider the entire environment that they’re in and one of those would be the success of the athletic programs.”

Recruiting top students and faculty is a priority for NU but there must be sufficient rewards in place to secure and retain them. Perlman suggests that just as NU must prepare students for careers, employers must ensure there are enough jobs to keep young people here once they earn their degree. He sees gains there too.

“For our college graduates there is a better chance they will stay in Nebraska for the jobs that are available,” he said. “That’s why Innovation Campus is so important, because we’re trying to do our part in terms of creating the kinds of jobs that college graduates would find attractive.”

Perlman has been a promoter of UNL’s Innovation Campus — envisioned as a multi-million dollar initiative on the sprawling former state fairgrounds site. It’s hoped a mix of public-private enterprises, both established and start-up, will do business and research there. The goal is that a critical mass of stimulus actviity will generate economic development through the products and services companies offer, the jobs they create and the taxes they pay.

“What we want to accomplish out there is clear,” he said, “and that is we want to leverage the research activity in the university to bring greater economic growth to Nebraska by getting private sector companies to locate on the property and to be adjacent to that research effort. That’s the idea. Can we fill up almost 200 acres with that kind of activity? I don’t know. We’ll try.”

In terms of what types of companies might locate there, he said “food, water and energy are the most likely attractives because that’s where our strengths are and that’s where Nebraska is, but we see other areas that could have potential. Software development is not out of the range of possibility. We don’t have any limits on what (might work).” He said NU hasn’t yet aggressively pursued potential companies “because more planning needs to be done to address the site’s infrastructure needs…” A faculty advisory committee is looking at the best ways to combine public-private efforts there.

By any measure, Innovation Campus will take time to develop.

“You look at the Research Triangle in North Carolina, it took them 50 years to get where they are,” he said. “I think we’ll move faster because the world is turning faster. Private sector companies are looking for universities” as partners and facilitators and hosts for incubation and innovation. “That process is ongoing. Fifty years ago that probably wasn’t true. I would hope that it would move quickly, but we’ve said to 20-25 years.”

The project is a stakeholder’s dream or nightmare depending on what happens.

“Some of us who were ardently in favor of getting the land and moving the state fair probably have a lot more personal reputation at stake on its success,” he said. “Realistically the university could be a great university without Innovation Campus but we wouldn’t have taken advantage of the opportunities that are available.”

Recruiting and keeping top faculty is a priority and there UNL could do more, Perlman said, to make it difficult for teachers to say no or to leave, though he says the school’s held its own in this regard.

“I think faculty salaries are not fully competitive with where they should be. With most other public universities incurring significant budget reductions over the last two or three years Nebraska’s been in relatively good shape, so we haven’t seen a lot of attrition.”

Recruiting and retaining good people is “key,” he said. All the innovation and efficiency in the world doesn’t matter, he said, “if you can’t attract talent.”

Despite some disadvantages NU has compared with its Big 10 brethren in terms of the state’s small population and the school’s smaller enrollment numbers and proportionally smaller alumni base, Nebraska finds ways to remain competitive. Perlman said the same work ethic and generosity that the state is imbued with permeates the university’s faculty and staff and supporters. That commitment, he said, gives him “not only a sense of pride but a great sense of relief.” “It is incredible,” he said, adding, “There’s a set of issues that other university presidents have to deal with that I don’t.”

If anything, he faults NU and Nebraskans for being too modest and reticent.

“I think it’s our traditional Midwestern reluctance to set really high goals and ambitions and to celebrate our successes.”

With opportunities come challenges, and vice versa. For example, based on the metrics that go into rating academic and research performance NU sits at the bottom of the Big 10. And while Perlman has said it’s not such a bad thing to be last among such prestigious company, he’s quick to add, “We’re not content to be last either — we’re not going to be last 10 years from now the way I see it.”

Perlman reminds skeptics that as much as NU courted the Big 10 the conference coveted the school. In other words, it wasn’t only a case of what NU could gain from being in the conference, it was what the league could gain from NU’s presence.

“I think it’s the brand,” Perlman said by way of explanation. “You know all the speculation was that Nebraska wouldn’t have a chance to get in the Big 10 because of the number of television sets was low relative to other schools that were mentioned (as prospective Big 10 additions). And that comes back to the assumption that all that university presidents worry about is the money, and it’s not true. Money’s significant, it’s a competitive thing, but it isn’t everything. In fact it wasn’t everything in the Big 10 when the school presidents voted (to accept NU as a new member).

“We’re a school with a good brand. We might not have a lot of television sets but we’ve probably got a lot of eyeballs across the country. We draw well” (both in the stands and in TV ratings).

Unlike the AD and coaching changes that sparked controversy and sometimes harsh attacks, the conference change was almost uniformly embraced.

“We have gotten almost no criticism within the state of Nebraska for this move,” said Perlman. “My wife continues to remind me that we can go 6-6 next year (in football), but right now everyone is pretty pleased. I’m surprised by the number of comments I get that recognize this was a major step for the academic side of the university as well as the athletic side.”

He forecasts the university’s leadership role will be ever more crucial for the state. He said the fact that NU is a close reflection of the industrious people it serves positions it to be an influential player in Nebraska’s economic growth.

“You would think its major institution would be that way and you wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “It also gives you an opportunity to lead. I mean, that’s the thing, especially in this economy — if you don’t have a strong research university taking a strong leadership role moving forward I don’t think we’ll be successful. I believe that. President Obama believes it, the minister of China believes it, the prime minister of India…The countries that want to be competitive are making major investments in higher education.”

He feels confident the University of Nebraska is poised to lead the way.

“I think it is coming into its own. The quality, the productivity, the ability to be competitive across the country is significant.”

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