Dr. Rodney Bennett didn’t have much to say about sports. Nebraska’s priority choice for its next chancellor completed an entire week of forums among faculty and students for the schools’ various colleges. While some of the questions Dr. Bennett answered mentioned athletics, he didn’t finally address athletics until late in the week. He was directly asked about his involvement (or lack thereof) in the alleged defrauding of state welfare funds to pay for a new volleyball facility when he was president of Southern Mississippi. Court documents show Bennett pushing back on Hall of Famer Brett Favre’s request for funds to pay for the new facility. Bennett doubled-down on his feelings again when addressing that controversy.
Bennett said he met with Favre and the former Golden Eagles quarterback promised to completely fund a new volleyball facility. Bennett believed him and trusted Favre to go to the board office for approval. They shook hands and carried on. Bennett said he then learned the school was looking for means to raise funds for a new facility beyond Favre. Bennett then said funding was no longer possible. Favre and athletic director Jeremy McClain then consulted outside counsel and eventually gained approval from the state attorney general’s office.
In 2020, the state auditor discovered an alleged misuse of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Funds to fund the facility—which was already under construction by that point. According to Bennett, Favre offered to pay back the amount in question plus that amount into a separate scholarship account. Bennett refused both offers.
“A person looks me in the eye and shakes my hand and gives me their word that they’re going to do something and that did not occur,” Bennett told one of the forums. “I still, to this day, have an issue with that.”
Nearly every forum Bennett participated in (about four per day all week) discussed budgetary issues. Nebraska faces budget trimmings, similar to those Bennett faced in his nine years as president at Southern Mississippi. Bennett encouraged the faculty members with more familiarity of Nebraska to think how the university can save, generate and raise money. He said there’s untapped opportunities in those options. Bennett flaunted his achievement of getting Southern Miss from R2 to R1 categorization during a budget shortfall and holds similar goals for Nebraska.
He wants to drive Nebraska back into the top 100 and regain its membership in the American Association of Universities. Nebraska is the only current Big Ten school to not maintain such distinction. Nebraska joined the AAU in 1909 and was ousted in 2011. Then-chancellor Harvey Pearlman told faculty in an email the school was at risk for a decade prior and couldn’t ultimately hold off a vote for removal. Notre Dame, Miami, Arizona State, South Florida, George Washington and UC-Riverside all received invitations to the AAU earlier this month, which would bring membership to 71 schools.
Bennett doesn’t believe Nebraska’s current budget scenario should interfere with its pursuit of AAU membership once again. He said he doesn’t believe in across-the-board budget cuts. Instead, he wants different reviews within the budget-reduction process. Bennett listed enrollment, retention, graduation rates, research portfolio, eroded faculty lines and others among his top goals going forward. He also referred back to creativity when raising funds and referenced Nebraska’s various high-attendance sporting events. President Ted Carter’s priority choice for new chancellor pointed to those events as evidence to the ties the state’s population has to its flagship university. And in those ties lays opportunity.
“I saw an opportunity that had not been defined yet,” Bennett told the journalism forum on Tuesday. “And when I say defined I mean we are only limited by our own creativity and our own imagination and our own willingness to work to get it.”
Per state statues, students, faculty and stakeholders are invited by President Carter to deliver their feedback for Bennett to the university. If Carter deems appropriate, he will submit Bennett’s approval to the school’s Board of Regents for their June 22 meeting.