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Randy York’s N-Sider (third in a series)
When Harvey Perlman gave a lecture on Leadership 101 last weekend, it was easy to connect the dots between two critical Nebraska disciplines he oversees – academia and athletics.The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s longest tenured chancellor since the 1960s, Perlman discussed something that stretches beyond his own vision of Innovation Campus, a dynamic environment designed to connect public and private sector talent and transform ideas into innovation that impacts the world.
Speaking at the Champions Club, located across the street from Memorial Stadium, Perlman praised the two research bays of 20,000 square feet each that are being built and will be housed inside Nebraska's expanding East Stadium – one that UNL will direct and the other that NU's Athletic Department will oversee.
The emergence of that double-barreled power inside a football stadium is a fitting metaphor for the book Perlman kept referencing throughout his lecture – “Good to Great” by Jim Collins, who analyzes why some companies make the leap and others don’t and then applies the same principles to demonstrate how universities, like companies, can transform themselves with more disciplined people, thought and action, especially when they blend extreme humility with intense professional will.
Key to Success: An Immunity to Criticism
“You have to build up a certain immunity or indifference to criticism,” Perlman said. “When I took this job, someone told me to picture an image of myself tied to the railroad tracks with a train coming and nothing I can do about it.” Perlman went on to dissect and explain some of the worst decisions he’s made and mix them in with some of the best.
If you listened to his buildup of the Athletic Department’s research, you would sense the breakthroughs he’s expecting, particularly in one of the hottest areas on the national scene – concussion research, which was elevated to conversational status with the recent suicide of NFL perennial all-pro Junior Seau. Perlman also mentioned how Nebraska Global, a Lincoln-based software company, has collaborated with the Athletic Department to build a state-of-the-art strength and conditioning product that promises to revolutionize strength training and nutritional thought, along with other ways to optimize the total student-athlete experience.
“The culture of the university and the culture of the Nebraska private economy need to come together to maximize opportunity,” Perlman said. “It’s critically important to figure out what can make us both great. When we work on new technology ventures, we’re enriching the cultures of the university and the private-sector economy."
Collaboration Produces Benefits for Everyone
"Private businesses can dictate salary if they invent something, and when they collaborate with us, our faculty gets a third of the royalties generated by any of the intellectual property,” Perlman said, acknowledging that in the past year, Nebraska executed 35 licenses for university technology, had 40 spinoff companies coming out of university research and generated a couple million dollars in licensing agreements.
That’s why Perlman sees such great potential in the East Stadium. “Traditionally, Nebraska has been innovative in the area of athletic performance and medicine,” he said. “We’ve designed equipment for weight rooms around the country. I mean, I hope you understand how extraordinary it is – relative to what goes on around the country – to have an athletic department create a research space. That’s one extraordinary thing. The other extraordinary thing is they’re collaborating with the rest of the university to do it in a very successful way. Their devotion to research is not just on student-athlete athletic performance, but on human performance, and I’m very proud of an athletic department willing to do that.”
Perlman said Nebraska’s Athletic Department is not one with so much money that it pushes itself off to the side and fails to integrate with the rest of university. He praised the leadership of Tom Osborne, an athletic director who makes sure Nebraska doesn’t build a business structure of its own.
Leveraging Athletic and Academic Enterprise
“What we’re doing here in the East Stadium is a perfect example of leveraging the opportunities of an athletic department and the academic enterprise together,” Perlman said, “and because we’re doing that, we are now leaders in the Big Ten in concussion research.”
NU's chancellor pointed out how research teams from the Pac-12 and Big Ten Conferences are studying concussion injuries and have decided to join Nebraska and its leadership role in this critical area. “When you get these kinds of synergies, that’s what you look for in a university ... being able not just to integrate good stuff but great stuff.” To learn more, check out this University of Nebraska-produced video that ended up in the No. 1 spot on a recent Science360 website, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Admitting in his lecture that he’s an avid sports follower just like he has a passion for academia, Perlman cherishes the immunity and indifference he’s built up to criticism.
After going into great detail about why he calls himself "the accidental chancellor" who kept turning down the job and keeps coming back to take on more new challenges, someone asked Perlman an important question at the end of his lecture: How much longer do you NOT want this job?
Passion, Worth, Health Keep Him on Track
Perlman said he wants the job “as long as I have passion for it, as long as I think I can accomplish something ... as long as my health holds up and as long as the train doesn’t come.” The short pause and the quick smile that punctuated his punch line allowed the audience to draw its own conclusions, and personally, I think Harvey Perlman enjoys seeing himself tied to the railroad tracks with a train coming full speed right at him. That train is all the motivation a good chancellor needs to help Nebraska become great.
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