Jack's Insights May 2016

By Jack Whittier, Director
UNL Panhandle Extension District and Panhandle Research and Extension Center

"You're in Good Hands with Allstate” is a familiar slogan that has been around since adopted as a trademark for Allstate in 1950. The slogan, along with the cupping hands image, engenders a feeling of security and stability. Today, I’m taking the liberty to modify this slogan to illustrate my perspective of a recent change in the Chancellor position for the University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL).

Dr. Jack Whittier“We’re in Good Hands with Ronnie!”

I feel justified in saying this because not only is Ronnie Green my boss, but now he’s my big boss – I say this with the highest level of respect. I also feel justified in making this statement because I have known Ronnie for many years and witnessed his abilities in action on several fronts. Let me mention a few of these.

Ronnie and I were colleagues in the Animal Science Department at Colorado State University.  Ronnie was already on the faculty when I arrived at CSU in 1995. Ronnie and his wife, Jane (I’ll say more about Jane later), were quick to help Robynn, me, and our two young boys settle into the department and the community when we arrived in Colorado. While at CSU, Ronnie showed leadership in the genetics group in department and was an excellent instructor for students. I had the opportunity to work alongside Ronnie until he left CSU to join “Future Beef,” a comprehensive gene-to-retail beef system that boomed, then busted, in the early 21st century (I’ll say more about Future Beef later, too).

A few years after our time at CSU, I had the opportunity to observe Ronnie’s leadership and vision when he served as president of the American Society of Animal Science, a professional society comprised heavily of Ph.D. animal scientists. I was on the board of directors of the society during Ronnie’s time as president and was able to observe his skills as a leader, organizer and facilitator. It may surprise you that working with a group of Ph.D.’s can sometimes be a challenge – Ronnie’s leadership style allowed him to handle this role very well. It was during this time that Ronnie was named as vice chancellor for UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR). 

When I was considered for my current position as director of the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff, one thing that came through loud and clear as I interviewed was that Ronnie had set a course for excellence in IANR and was strategically carrying out that plan. After arriving on the job here, it became even more apparent that Ronnie had a vision for what IANR has to offer for Nebraska. And that vision does not stop at the state border. He is a big idea thinker who is able to rally support and excitement from every quarter.

When Ronnie told me over a year ago that he was considering an interest in the UNL chancellor position, my thought was, “But oh, Ronnie, we need you in IANR.”  Later on, during the interview, vetting and selection process for the chancellor position, I and a few others expressed the concern to Ronnie of what would occur in IANR if Ronnie were selected and move up to chancellor. He leaned over to me later and quietly said, “Don’t worry Jack, I’ve got that all figured out.”  I knew Ronnie well enough to recognize that, yes, he certainly would have a well-thought-out plan ready when selected, and he is already beginning to implement that plan.

I’ll mention one more trait I have noticed that I think describes his approach to leadership. If you have been around Ronnie much, he knows and refers to everyone by their first name. I’ll admit that at first I was a little uncomfortable with this level of familiarity, especially among a group of university administrators. I was not used to referring to my bosses by first name, but I soon realized that this culture was prevalent in Ronnie’s sphere.

So now, Chuck, Archie and even Hank – well, I may not quite be ready to call President Hank Bounds by first name – are common for me and others within the university and across Nebraska.  (The others I’m referring to are Chuck Hibberd, Dean and Director of Extension, and Archie Clutter, Dean and Director of IANR’s Agricultural Research Division.) I think this develops an atmosphere of trust, collegiality and support – an atmosphere that will be ever important in Ronnie’s new role.

I promised earlier to say more about Future Beef. During the dawn of Future Beef in 2001, I had the opportunity to begin a sabbatical leave from CSU with Future Beef. With my sabbatical request approved, I began working with Future Beef under Ronnie’s oversight within the heifer development component of the cow-calf segment with the centralized, prescribed flow of genetics through their cattle supply chain. I had really just gotten started with this project when Future Beef was ordered into bankruptcy. 

This is when I saw a side of Ronnie that I still admire. Rather than make excuses, point fingers or cry on shoulders, Ronnie took the bull by the horns (so to speak) and wrote a clarifying, descriptive article in BEEF magazine titled, “Why Future Beef Went Under.” You may want to Google it and read it yourself; it is in the Nov. 1, 2002, issue of BEEF.

In the article Ronnie outlined 11 “squalls”, as he called them, along with eight valuable lessons learned for himself and the beef industry by the Future Beef experiment.

The mission of Future Beef was to construct a vertically coordinated, closed-loop beef production system designed to return more dollars to producers. While this experiment failed, many important things were learned by those involved and by the entire industry. I believe this experience, and his grace in handling it, were important segments of Ronnie’s preparation to be a chancellor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Now, let me say a few words about Ronnie’s real asset, that’s his wife, Jane. If you know Jane and Ronnie, I think you will agree that much of why Ronnie is where he is can be attributed to Jane’s support, encouragement, correction when needed, and partnership she brings to their marriage. We saw this when we first arrived in Fort Collins in 1995 and admire this now. Jane has the ability to make others feel welcome, important and cared for – and besides that, she is the ultimate Husker fan!

So, I assure you from my perspective, UNL, the Panhandle Research and Extension Center, and Panhandle Extension District are truly in good hands with Ronnie at the helm. The feeling of stability and security I mentioned before surround our flagship land-grant university and will pervade under Ronnie’s “watch care.” We’re in Good Hands with Ronnie!