Doug Kristensen to retire as UNK chancellor after 22 years

University of Nebraska at Kearney Chancellor Doug Kristensen, a native Nebraskan, lifelong public servant and the longest-serving chancellor in the history of the University of Nebraska, announced today that he will be stepping away after 22 years in the role.

Kristensen will step down from the chancellor’s role at the end of the current academic year, providing the University of Nebraska President’s Office a runway to determine next steps for UNK leadership. Kristensen will take a one-year professional development leave, after which he intends to remain engaged on strategic projects within the university community.

“Central Nebraska is home to me. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to live, work and raise our family,” Kristensen said. “It has been a great privilege to be part of a community that cares so deeply about UNK and the University of Nebraska’s mission to educate the people of our state.”

“The faculty and staff of UNK are as talented as they come, and students are at the heart of everything they do. UNK has a strong future ahead because of them. This is not an easy decision for me, but in talking with my family, we believe now is the right time for me to step away and allow a new leader to carry on UNK’s vital work in providing education and economic development for central and western Nebraska.”

Since his appointment in July 2002, Kristensen has built a record of strong and passionate advocacy for UNK and rural Nebraska, including a focus on access and affordability that has yielded consistently high rankings for UNK in quality and value.

He has also overseen a dramatic renewal of the Kearney campus. Perhaps most notably, in collaboration with UNMC and public and private partners across the state, Kristensen has played the lead role in the development of what will become the largest rural health education center in the country: the Douglas A. Kristensen Rural Health Education Complex, to be named in his honor following recent Board of Regents approval. The first facility in the complex, the Health Science Education Complex, opened in 2015 and brought UNMC nursing and allied health programs to UNK. Student cohorts filled quickly and 85% of graduates so far have started their careers in rural Nebraska, advancing the project’s goal to grow the rural healthcare workforce.

A second, 110,000-square-foot rural health education facility will bring programs in medicine, pharmacy, public health and behavioral health services to Kearney when it opens in 2026. That facility also represents a public-private partnership.

The health facilities follow Kristensen’s launch in 2010 of the Kearney Health Opportunities Program, a partnership with UNMC to recruit and educate students who want to return to rural Nebraska to practice health care. The acceptance rate of UNK students to various health care professional programs is now more than 93%.

Kristensen also led the planning and launch of University Village, a 107-acre urban village with academic and community spaces including Village Flats student apartments, the LaVonne Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center, Grundy Tennis Center, Element 30 residences and retail complex; and a Nebraska Medicine cancer treatment center and the Regional Engagement Center which are under construction.

Those major developments come on top of more than $360 million in new construction and major renovation that Kristensen has overseen at UNK, including the 90,000-square-foot STEM education building Discovery Hall, Greek housing, renovation or new construction of every residence hall, athletics and student wellness facilities, improvements to the Nebraskan Student Union and campus dining facilities, renovations to the Bruner Hall of Science, Calvin T. Ryan Library and Warner Hall, a new central utilities plant, and more.

“There is no better champion for UNK and rural Nebraska than Doug Kristensen. His selfless leadership and relentless dedication to UNK’s mission will benefit students and Nebraskans for generations to come,” said University of Nebraska System President Ted Carter. “This news is bittersweet. Doug has been a great friend and advisor to me and is a beloved leader to the campus and community. I have tremendous admiration for his loyalty and deep understanding of our state and university system. This is a well-earned decision for Doug, Terri and their family.”

Kristensen became UNK’s chancellor following a distinguished 14-year career in the Nebraska Legislature. At the time of his retirement from the Legislature, he was the longest-serving Speaker in history. He was one of the sponsors of the legislation that brought then-Kearney State College into the University of Nebraska System. At the time he held political office, Kristensen was a partner at a law firm in Minden. He earned his law degree from Drake University and bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In addition to being the longest-serving chancellor in NU history, Kristensen also is the longest currently-serving leader of any higher education institution in Nebraska.

Kristensen and his wife, District Judge Terri S. Harder, have multiple University of Nebraska degrees. Both of their daughters have bachelor’s degrees from UNK, with Paige earning an MBA from UNO, and Morgan a master’s in public health from UNMC and law degree from UNL.

University of Nebraska System interim President Chris Kabourek, who assumes the role on Jan. 1, said he will quickly formulate a process to identify the next leader for UNK.

“Chancellor Kristensen is a great leader, friend and champion for UNK and higher education. We are a better university because of his leadership and his commitment to students and rural Nebraska,” Kabourek said. “Our entire state, and our rural communities in particular, depend on a strong and thriving UNK and University of Nebraska.

“Especially as we bring our rural health education facilities to full operation and move forward with our goals to grow enrollment and excellence, we can’t afford to lose momentum. It will be crucial that we find someone who can seamlessly pick up where Chancellor Kristensen will leave off.”