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Home » Clarion » 2014 » February 2014 » CUNY's New Chancellor Is James Milliken, Head of University of Nebraska

CUNY's New Chancellor Is James Milliken, Head of University of Nebraska

New CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken

James B. Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska since 2004, has been appointed the new chancellor of the City University of New York. He will take office no later than June 1.

Milliken was selected by a 16-member search committee led by Benno Schmidt, current chair of CUNY’s Board of Trustees, and was appointed by a unanimous vote of the trustees on January 15. Names of other finalists were not disclosed.

University of Nebraska faculty were mostly positive in their assessment of Milliken’s decade at the helm. “Overall, he’s been a good president,” said Bob Darcy, professor of English at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) and head of the AAUP chapter there, which represents Omaha faculty in collective bargaining. Darcy described Milliken as an effective and thoughtful executive, “not a friend to the union, but not an enemy, either.”

“He’s an exceptionally competent administrator,” said Meredith Bacon, professor of political science and head of the UNO Faculty Senate. “Like everyone else in this profoundly red state, he is a fiscal conservative, but he has won significant budgeting victories with the even more conservative governor and Legislature.”

Terrence Martell, chair of CUNY’s University Faculty Senate and a member of the search committee, said that Milliken’s view of the mission of a public university will serve him well at CUNY. The University of Nebraska “is in many senses materially different from the City University of New York, but on the other hand, we are both about providing opportunity to people who don’t have opportunity,” Martell said. “He gets that.”

Milliken’s predecessor, Matthew Goldstein, was described in the January 16 Wall Street Journal as “the divisive former CUNY chancellor who stepped down last summer after 14 years.” As the Journal, The New York Times and other media reported, Goldstein’s last years were marked by sharp conflict over Pathways, an administration-imposed overhaul of CUNY’s curriculum for general education. “The program is opposed by most faculty members, who see it as a way to centralize control of the curriculum and, they contend, cut down on instruction,” reported the Times.

New Start

“The PSC welcomes J.B. Milliken to CUNY,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen. “We stand ready to work with him as productively as we can,” she told the Wall Street Journal. Bowen “implored the new chancellor to ‘listen to the faculty and respect our knowledge’ on the [Pathways] issue,” the Times reported; a union statement noted the 92% vote of no confidence in Pathways in a referendum among full-time faculty last May.

“The most important things he can do as chancellor are to support rescinding the Pathways resolution,” Bowen told Clarion, “and to be aggressive in pursuing an economic settlement of our contract that provides for overdue salary increases and better working conditions.” CUNY, she said, is ready for a new direction.

Nebraska Born

James B. Milliken, known to colleagues as J.B., was born in Fremont, Nebraska, and graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1979. After working as a legislative assistant to Rep. Virginia Smith, a Republican and Nebraska’s first woman elected to Congress, Milliken enrolled in law school at New York University, from which he graduated in 1983. After a brief stint with NYC’s Legal Aid Society, he moved to Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, a Wall Street law firm where he worked on securities litigation. It was an era when “insider trading” and “junk bonds” became familiar terms: the cases Milliken worked on included lawsuits against Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, according to Nebraska Magazine.

Milliken returned to his home state in 1988 when he was hired as executive assistant to the president of the University of Nebraska; he later become the system’s vice president for external affairs. It was the start of his career as an academic administrator – not through teaching and research, but as a specialist in external affairs, which first and foremost meant relations with government.

In 1998 Milliken moved from the four-campus University of Nebraska to the 16-campus University of North Carolina, to serve as VP for external affairs in the larger system. In 2004 he returned to the University of Nebraska as its president, the first native Nebraskan and the first NU graduate to hold that position. (NU is the abbreviation used when referring to the Nebraska system as a whole.)

“What J.B. is really good at is not being disliked by very powerful people,” said Bacon, the faculty senate president at the University of Nebraska Omaha. “He’s really good at working with our governor, who’s even more conservative than the Board of Regents. And he’s good at making deals with the Legislature.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell what Milliken is blocking,” said the AAUP’s Darcy. “He ultimately answers to the Board of Regents, which is elected. On some issues it’s clear what his own views are, but not always.”

Julia Schleck, U. of Nebraska-Lincoln

As an example of Milliken’s deal-making abilities, Bacon cited a recent gain in state funding, in which legislators approved a 4% annual increase in each of two years. “He told the legislature, ‘If you give us more state aid, we’ll freeze tuition for two years,’ and they agreed to it,” she told Clarion. “It was a heck of an achievement, because the state had not been generous with us.” NU’s state support had been essentially flat for the previous five years, with tuition increased each year during that time.

“People have generally been impressed at what he’s been able to do in a very conservative state,” agreed Julia Schleck, an AAUP member and associate professor of English at NU’s Lincoln campus.

Affordability and Diversity

During Milliken’s term as president of University of Nebraska, he has often said that college affordability is “our top priority,” and NU faculty say he has followed this up with action. “He’s been pretty hard-line on tuition,” commented Darcy. “He’s kept it low.”

(Tuition rates in the NU vary by campus; typical in-state undergraduate tuition could vary from around $5,200 to $6,500 per year, depending on the campus and number of credit-hours, plus about $1,500 in fees.)

Milliken has also moved to increase need-based financial aid. He “launched and expanded Collegebound Nebraska, which promises free tuition to all Pell grant-eligible Nebraska residents,” according to the Omaha World-Herald. The program now includes about 7,000 students, or “almost one-quarter of Nebraska undergraduates at the university,” according to NU. (Out-of-state and international students and those in graduate programs bring NU’s total enrollment to about 50,000, compared to 270,000 at CUNY.)

Milliken led the NU administration in speaking out against a 2008 state ballot referendum banning affirmative action in admissions and hiring, which was backed by former University of California Regent Ward Connerly. “If we are to prepare our students to be successful in a global economy, we should offer an educational environment that reflects the diversity of the world,” Milliken argued. The ballot measure passed, but requirements attached to the use of federal funds have left NU with some flexibility in this arena.

As president, Milliken was also vocal in the defense of a Nebraska law that provides for undocumented immigrant students who reside in the state to pay in-state tuition rates. Nebraska will advance “only by making higher education more accessible – not by closing the doors on students who are able and want to pursue a degree,” he wrote to legislators in 2011. That bill was defeated, and the in-state tuition law remains on the books. (New York has had a similar law since 2002, the result of organizing by a coalition that included the PSC.)

In 2012, Milliken successfully lobbied the University of Nebraska’s regents to extend benefits such as health insurance to unmarried partners of NU employees. (Unlike CUNY’s trustees, who are appointed by the governor and mayor, NU’s regents are elected by Nebraska’s voters.) In prior years, the regents had resisted the idea. But when University of Nebraska-Lincoln entered the Big 10, “there was some pressure from that corner to allow for domestic partner benefits,” Darcy told Clarion. Since Nebraska’s constitution has banned state recognition of civil unions or domestic partnerships since 2000, Milliken proposed a plan to allow NU employees to get benefits coverage for one other adult who is a long-term part of their household, which he dubbed the “Plus One” program; it was adopted by the regents on a 5-3 vote.

Bacon told Clarion that Milliken’s commitment to diversity has been a consistent part of his role at NU. “During my first incarnation as Faculty Senate president, I was Walter, and during this tenure I am Meredith,” said Bacon, who has served as board chair of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “There was not even a hiccup in our relations.” That was not the case with all members of the Board of Regents, she added: “A couple of them still will not acknowledge me.”

Industrial And Military Complexes

As president, Milliken has aggressively pursued partnerships with both private corporations and the military.

One of the largest of NU’s “public/private partnerships” is the new Nebraska Innovation Campus (NIC)under construction across from the Lincoln campus, being built with $25 million in additional state funds. The NIC is billed as a place “where university and private sector talent connect to transform ideas into innovation,” with university research labs and corporate offices side-by-side. Processed food giant ConAgra, known for brands from Slim Jim to Swiss Miss to Hebrew National, will be a major tenant. “We’re enthusiastic about this announcement, which really represents an extension of the relationship we’ve been fostering with the university for several years,” said Al Bolles, a ConAgra VP, in 2012.

In 2012, the University of Nebraska also announced that it had been selected by the Pentagon as the site for a University-Affiliated Research Center (UARC), an $84 million partnership with the US Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, which is located near Omaha. NU’s selection “as one of only 14 universities nationwide to host a UARC provides tremendous opportunities for Nebraska,” Milliken told the State Legislature in March 2013. Other schools hosting UARCs include Penn State, Johns Hopkins and MIT. At NU, plans call for research to focus on “nuclear detection and forensics, detection of chemical and biological weapons [and] passive defense against weapons of mass destruction,” as well as space, cyber and telecommunications law. The UARC is part of the University of Nebraska’s new National Strategic Research Institute, headed by retired US Air Force Lt. General Robert Hinson.

Last June, Milliken was criticized by Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman for his role on the corporate board of Nebraska-based Valmont Industries, a manufacturer of irrigation equipment and utility poles. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Milliken was likely to receive $230,000 in compensation for his service on Valmont’s board in 2013, with $130,000 of that as a stock award. Heineman said that while he thinks Milliken “is doing an outstanding job,” he was concerned that his Valmont duties would be a distraction from Milliken’s work as NU president.

“The governor and I will apparently have to agree to disagree,” Milliken told the World-Herald. He said that he avoids conflict using vacation time from the university to take care of his Valmont work, and that his service on the board benefits the university in many ways.

A 2011 vote by NU’s regents had given Milliken permission to join the board of a public company, though neither the name of the company nor his compensation were disclosed at the time.

Milliken’s salary at the University of Nebraska was $431,276, according to the World-Journal, plus $230,000 in deferred compensation and retirement contributions. At CUNY his total compensation will be $670,000, according to The New York Times.

Global Outlook

NU has a significant international presence, with collaborative programs with academic institutions in China, India, Zambia and elsewhere around the world. Milliken has viewed these projects as a priority, describing them as central to the university’s mission. He has also worked to expand the number of international students enrolled at NU, and has represented the United States at a number of international conferences on higher education.

“Few things are more important for students at the University of Nebraska, and students throughout the world, than global literacy – a balanced and thoughtful understanding of cultures and politics around the world,” Milliken said in 2006. “Through language study and foreign exchanges, and also by welcoming students and scholars from other countries to our campuses, our students and faculty are taking critical steps toward competing and thriving in a rapidly changing world.”

Online Initiative

This international focus also found expression in the first of three university-wide institutes that Milliken has launched in recent years, the Daugherty Water for Food Institute, which is focused on water resources and agriculture around the world. The institute’s board includes Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a Nebraska native who has praised Milliken’s work as NU president.

Founded in 2010, the Daugherty Water for Food Institute is named after Robert Daugherty, founder of Valmont Industries, and the institute’s website describes Valmont as “the most successful irrigation company in the world.” Milliken followed its launch with the creation of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute in 2011 and the Rural Futures Institute in 2012.

In recent years Milliken has overseen a dramatic expansion of NU’s online course offerings and degree programs – and its progress illustrates his approach to working with university faculty. “The university now…has over 130 degree and certificate programs completely online,” Milliken said in an interview on “Halftime with President Milliken,” a paid radio spot that airs during UNL football games. The all-online offerings include master’s degree programs in political science, sociology and other disciplines.

“That’s really been Milliken’s initiative, and faculty have been offered tremendous incentives to do it,” said Darcy. Faculty involvement in online education “is entirely elective,” he told Clarion. “No one is forced or pressured to do it – it’s the carrot without the stick.” Faculty members receive additional pay for the additional work of designing and teaching a new online course; those interested faculty apply for a grant from a university center on online instruction. While the exact amounts vary, he said, this might typically total about $2,500 for a new course: about half to develop the course and about half to teach it for the first time. “The general attitude [of the administration] is that if you want to do the work, we’ll pay you to do it,” Darcy said.

In addition to these stipends, a large share of the fees from each online course are now returned to the department’s budget, supporting travel, research or other uses at the discretion of the department chair. “Our departmental budgets are inadequate,” said the UNO Faculty Senate’s Bacon. “So any way we can expand those budgets, we grab it.”

Both Darcy and Bacon said that online courses have been generally more expensive to offer than classroom courses, and it is unclear how long NU will continue these financial supports for online instruction. “It’s only in the last few years that so much of the money has come back to departments,” said UNL’s Schleck. “Administrators at the college level will say, ‘We’re not sure how long this is going to continue.’”

“While there’s skepticism about online education,” said Schleck, “there’s also an argument that for a land-grant university in a huge, mainly rural state like Nebraska, online instruction could be important in expanding college access.” Three of NU’s four campuses are in the far eastern part of the state, and none are in the western half, she noted.

“At this stage it’s all in an experimental mode,” said Darcy. “Seeing if it works, what works – pedagogically, the jury is still out.”

Roger Davis, U. of Nebraska-Kearney

That being the case, it rubbed NU faculty the wrong way when the NU administration signed an agreement with Coursera, a for-profit provider of MOOCs (massive open online courses), without disclosing the terms in advance.

“Many faculty, especially those of us on the two collective bargaining campuses, felt we should have been involved before anyone signed something,” said Roger Davis, a professor of history and past president of the University of Nebraska Kearney Education Association (UNKEA), a chapter of the National Education Association which represents faculty at NU’s Kearney campus. “On the other hand, the university and Milliken have been very forthcoming in discussing it since then, and it’s clear that the Coursera agreement doesn’t commit us to very much.” Essentially, Davis explained, the agreement states that if an NU campus does want to move forward in offering MOOCs, that Coursera is who the school would work with. But no campus or faculty member is required to offer MOOCs or any course online.

Faculty Authority

At NU, who decides whether a MOOC measures up in terms of academic quality? “Under NU’s bylaws, only the faculty can decide what can get credit and what cannot,” said Bacon, adding that Milliken has not sought to undermine this faculty authority. “There are some regents who think MOOCs are the best thing since sliced bread, but their own bylaws have empowered us to make those decisions.”

“We have several provisions in our contract that relate to online education,” added the UNKEA’s Davis, “and we have some questions about Coursera’s instructor agreements.” At the Kearney campus, he said, it would not be possible to offer a MOOC “until the union had vetted the agreement” for compliance with the contract. Online instruction issues are likely to feature in the next round of the UNKEA’s contract negotiations, Davis said.

“Milliken has a lot of experience working with faculty in a collective bargaining environment,” added Davis, noting that the president has had to deal with two different contracts at UNO and UNK. There is no collective bargaining agreement at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln or the University of Nebraska Medical Center, but the AAUP’s Darcy said that those two campuses are also affected by bargaining’s results. “The benefits we get at Omaha are typically made standard systemwide,” he explained.

In terms of the bargaining process itself, however, Davis said that Milliken has not been much involved. “The Board of Regents and their officers are essentially who we negotiate with,” he explained. The president’s role in those negotiations, he said, is “peripheral.”

In his decade as NU president, Milliken has at least proven not to be hostile to faculty unions, said Davis. “We’re in a right-to-work state and a conservative state, so there are always a lot of voices out here not friendly to collective bargaining,” he told Clarion. “As a leader, Milliken certainly could have taken a more anti-union route – there are politicians who would have supported it – and he chose not to do so.”


“Milliken is a very pragmatic guy. He has a bit of the technician about him,” Davis added. “He’s mainly interested in pulling things together, moving things forward, getting things done. He’s a person with a vision of where he wants to go, and he’s willing to work with many different people to get there.”

While Milliken has never pursued the type of end-run around faculty governance structures that characterized the CUNY administration’s imposition of Pathways (see Clarion, August 2011) he does not run NU as a town-hall democracy. “When he has come to talk to our faculty senate, he’s not really there to get our general input or seek consensus. But he does like to keep us informed, and he’s a pretty straight shooter,” commented the AAUP’s Darcy.

The UNKEA’s Davis says Milliken “has generally been complimentary toward the faculty role in governance.” He explained that Milliken’s “pragmatic side has always recognized that you can set some directions and an overall vision, but actual success relies on having a degree of integrity, a degree of legitimacy in the way you pursue it, so that you get people’s support.”

“Partly that’s the nature of the system here,” Davis added. “Each campus takes its responsibility for overseeing its own academic affairs pretty seriously.”

Day-to-day, most University of Nebraska faculty have more contact with the head of their own campus administration than with the president of the system. (In the opposite of CUNY’s administrative titles, the system head is called the president and the top official on each campus is called a chancellor.) “Milliken isn’t micromanaging, which we like,” commented Darcy. “He really seems to grant each chancellor at each campus the authority to run their own ship.”

Budget Change

But Milliken has put through some sweeping changes, and they have not always been popular. “In one fell swoop, not long after he was hired, he radically changed the budget system” for funding of individual campuses, Darcy said. “The new budget model that he created gave him a reputation of seeming to have corporate leanings.” The biggest change was to base a large share of campus discretionary funds on relative changes in enrollment: campuses are heavily penalized if enrollment drops, and generously rewarded if it climbs. While Darcy acknowledged that the Omaha campus had sometimes benefited as a result, he said these “incentives” are disproportionately large.

In 2013, the head of the faculty senate at University of Nebraska-Lincoln criticized UNL for shifting its hiring toward non-tenure-track positions in order to save money. “The corporate strategy that has been introduced and followed is not one that serves higher education the best,” said UNL Faculty Senate President Rigoberto Guevara. Recent growth in the proportion of non-tenure-track faculty at UNL has occurred mainly in full-time positions. But tenured and tenure-track faculty still outnumber contingents at UNL, which is not the case at most public universities.

Non-tenure-track full-timers are covered by collective bargaining agreements at UNO and UNK; part-time faculty are not unionized at any NU campus. Milliken has not said much in public about the university’s contingent faculty, full-time or part-time.

In announcing his move to CUNY, Milliken said it was “difficult to leave” his home state. At the same time, he said, he is “excited about this new challenge in the city where I began my career,” and that he was “honored” by the chance “to lead America’s premier urban public university.”

Milliken says he enjoyed his years in New York City, which is where he met his wife, Nana Smith, while both were working at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. But UNO Faculty Senate President Meredith Bacon, a native New Yorker herself, said those years did not seem to have left a strong mark on his taste in cuisine. “I never got him to like pastrami,” she told Clarion. “He always takes the bland food when there’s a choice – he doesn’t seem like a deli guy.”

What to Expect?

New York City offers fewer opportunities than Nebraska for some of Milliken’s past pastimes. “A passionate and competitive hunter, Milliken and his team, the Sandhills Bugeaters, won the prestigious One Box Pheasant Hunt at Broken Bow in 1995 – a competition in which the challenge is to bring in as many birds as possible using just one box of 25 shells,” reported NU’s alumni magazine in 2004.

Once he settles in as CUNY chancellor, how much will Milliken’s approach to students, faculty and staff resemble his record at University of Nebraska? What should CUNY expect from a Milliken administration?

“I could see him doing a big restructuring of some kind, like he did with changing our budget model. It’s possible. But if something’s working well for you, he’ll probably leave it alone,” ventured UNO’s Darcy.

“You wonder if people may change in a different environment,” mused Davis, of UNK. “I think of Bob Kerry, who was out here in Nebraska, and people said he got more heavy-handed when he went out east. But I think Milliken will probably tend toward a collaborative approach – it’s just his nature.”

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