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Duane Nellis: The TT Interview

The incoming president of Texas Tech University on his vision for the institution and why he isn't worried about coming to work in a state that is experiencing some debate around the issues of higher education governance.

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Duane Nellis, the soon-to-be-former president of the University of Idaho, will officially start his term as the 16th president of Texas Tech University in Lubbock on June 15.

He arrives, replacing previous president Guy Bailey, at an interesting moment for the institution, which has been rapidly increasing its research efforts in its quest to become the state's next "tier one" institution. In higher education more broadly in Texas, it's a moment marked by debate and tension over how institutions should be governed — though that squabble is largely focused on the University of Texas System.

Nellis did not seek out the Tech position, but he was recruited by a search firm. After first hearing about Tech, Nellis said, "through an evolution of continued dialogue, I felt like it was something I needed to explore a little bit more."

That exploration led to his being named the sole finalist for the position. 

In late March, a few months prior to taking the reins of the university, Nellis spoke with the Tribune about his vision for Texas Tech and why he isn't worried about coming to work in a state that is experiencing turbulence around the issues of higher education governance.

The following is an edited transcript of that conversation:

Texas Tribune: What do you think the search firm saw in you and what did you see in Texas Tech? How did that all match up?

Duane Nellis: Well, I've been a sitting president at the University of Idaho, which is a land grant university. Texas Tech is not a land grant university, but if you look at the structure as far as colleges and focal areas, there are a lot of similarities to a land grant university. 

So I think the fact that I was the sitting president of a land grant university, the fact that I'd been provost and senior vice president of Kansas State University, which is also a land grant but also similar in some ways to a Texas Tech-type of university. I think those were things that certainly led to their interest, as well as the success that I've had at each of these places.

For me looking at Tech, it's an opportunity to be on a little bit bigger stage than the University of Idaho and to get back to the Big 12 Conference, which I see as important visibility. Being in a Big 12 institution is not just athletic. Certainly, it is very important, and athletics in many ways are the front porch of the university, but it also creates other opportunities because of that Big 12 academic affiliation.

TT: What are those?

Nellis: Well, the fact that we're with institutions like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, the University of Texas, Kansas State, etc. that are really high-quality research universities, very student-centered universities. I think those are all things that I think the Big 12 celebrates and in much like the Big 10 or the Southeastern Conference, I think we have tremendous universities that are not only strong on the athletic field but also strong academically, and that sense of association is very important.

TT: Is there anything right off the bat that you see as an opportunity to change and sort of make your mark on the university?

Nellis: Well, I'm still assessing Tech, but I do think there are opportunities to continue to elevate the research profile of the institution, but also celebrate students' success. I see opportunities to do maybe a better job at making sure that the quality students we have here at Tech are nominated for national and international recognitions. We are in the process of recruiting a new vice president for research, and I think that can be a catalyst to move forward. I recognize the university has strategic research priorities already, but I think there are ways around some cluster hires and new types of investments where we can elevate the research profile, as well.

TT: What does "tier one" mean to you?

Nellis: It means being a national prominent, research comprehensive public university. I think Tech has made significant strides in that direction. It's one of the things that attracted me to be president here is the fact that it is in that positive trajectory.

I think with my background and experiences, working with the team that's here, we can continue to elevate Tech to being tier one, to being almost AAU-like. That includes making sure we have the most outstanding faculty, the most outstanding student success. It's about enhancing the overall profile of the institution, its impact on the state of Texas and nationally. So, I think it's certainly something that is a great aspiration and something we want to continue to move toward.

TT: Have you followed the turbulence in the state surrounding higher education governance?

Nellis: I've monitored it a little bit. But one of the things that is exciting to me here is the great relationship and support I feel with our governing board, the Texas Tech board of regents.

I feel they've been very supportive throughout this process. I feel that they're strong advocates for Texas Tech University, and I recognize that as we move forward, there's often a feeling in the Legislature and from the public that universities need to be held more accountable, and we want to be accountable. We want to do everything we can to increase our student success. That includes enhanced retention rates and greater graduation rates. We're certainly committed to that. 

I believe in that, but I also believe that we need the flexibility to move forward aggressively to take advantage of what are fairly rapidly changing dynamics in higher education in the nation. We need the flexibility to be able to do that as well.

TT: So it sounds like you're not too nervous about any ripple effects from the drama at the UT System right now?

Nellis: No, at this stage, I’m not nervous about that.

TT: Have you been listening to a lot of Buddy Holly in anticipation of your move to Lubbock?

Nellis: I've always liked Buddy Holly. I’ve always liked him. Tragic loss.

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