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The identity of the candidate chosen to become the next president at the University of Nebraska remained a closely guarded secret until shortly before the Board of Regents voted Friday to designate Walter E. Carter Jr.

Rumors of a priority candidate hailing from an impressive, but different, higher education background began to spread Friday morning as regents convened at Varner Hall.

Carter, the former superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, enters a rigorous 30-day vetting period.

The pick by regents marks the second test of a new search process for top administrators carving out broad exemptions from Nebraska’s public-records statutes, which require most agencies to name four finalists.

A first test in 2017 to name a new chancellor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha ended with no finalist being named.

Under the 2016 law, NU can name a single priority candidate for openings for system president or campus chancellor, meaning Nebraskans will likely never know how many people applied for a job that could soon become the second-highest-paid public employee in the state.

“We’re not even going to talk about a number,” said Regent Jim Pillen of Columbus, chairman of the Presidential Search Advisory Committee. “I’ll just say it was a robust pool. We were really pleased with the pool.”

Others on the 23-person search committee said they were pleased with the six-month search process that led them to Carter, 60, as the priority candidate to become NU’s eighth president.

As applications came in, Pillen said committee members reviewed the credentials of each candidate, ultimately voting on potential leaders they wanted to bring to Nebraska for interviews.

The committee debated each potential candidate — Pillen said, “everybody’s voice was heard multiple times” — before voting by secret ballot to forward a list of what members felt were the top people to the Board of Regents.

The secret ballot approach was key, Pillen added, as it allowed committee members to vote their conscious, uninfluenced by others on how to vote.

Dawn Mollenkopf, faculty president of the University of Nebraska at Kearney and a search committee member, said the committee had “deep discussions, which appropriately became heated at times,” but ultimately allowed for feedback and a powerful consensus.

“When actual votes were cast, we actually had very strong consensus about who to advance and who we absolutely did not want to see,” Mollenkopf said.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln English Professor Kwame Dawes described the search as “fair and thoughtful, characterized by candid and strongly expressed opinions, engaging and enlightening discussions about our university system and its future, and above all its importance to our state.”

At the end of discussion, Dawes said, “a remarkable sense of consensus governed the committee’s recommendation.”

Carter received unanimous support among the committee members, which Pillen said signaled NU has someone special on its hands.

Candidates had to go through two rounds of interviews at the regents’ level. The board split in two — Pillen led one group, Regent Tim Clare of Lincoln chaired another — and grilled each of the candidates in separate locations.

At the end of the interview process, Pillen said Carter checked off each of the leadership pillars identified by the Board of Regents in its meetings with state lawmakers, NU administrators, faculty, staff and students, as well as Nebraskans at large.

Those pillars, which Carter addressed in an introductory letter to the committee, included finding someone with proven leadership skills who is a strategic thinker, prioritizes higher education, academic and research excellence, who has political acumen and fundraising capability and values ideas such as diversity and inclusion, sees NU as a global leader and college sports as a vehicle to connect the university to the state.

“What got (Carter) interested was when he read the leadership pillars,” Pillen said. “He said they spoke to his heart and that this became ‘the place for me.’”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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