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Chancellor Harvey Perlman Passionate About the University of Nebraska, its Future and NU Joining ‘Common Friends’ in the Big Ten


A few years ago, during one of the endless news spasms about the University of Nebraska football program, New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt floated the idea of our profiling the school’s chancellor, Harvey Perlman, who at the time was adroitly handling the latest firing and hiring. As the musical chairs continued playing out it became clear that Perlman was more than the public point man speaking on behalf of the university about these changes, but the orchestrator of these moves. Below is the profile os this man at the top who speaks softly but carries a big stick.

Harvey Perlman
Harvey Perlman

Chancellor Harvey Perlman Passionate About the University of Nebraska, its Future and NU Joining ‘Common Friends’ in the Big Ten

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Most of you probably first laid eyes on University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman in October of 2007.

That’s when his face was all over the media in the wake of his firing Steve Pederson as Nebraska athletic director and hiring Husker coaching legend Tom Osborne to rejoin the Big Red family as the new AD.

Even though by then Perlman had already put in six years as the university’s CEO, chances are his name, much less the position he filled, barely registered with the average Nebraskan. You might have known he was a top NU administrator, but it’s unlikely you could have picked him out of a lineup or identified anything he put his stamp on.

You also probably didn’t know he’s an NU alumnus, as is his wife Susan and their two daughters and their husbands.

“We like to keep it in the family,” he said of this legacy.

It’s unlikely you knew he was previously the longtime dean of NU’s law college. Or that he joined the NU law faculty in 1967 after being mentored in the profession under the legendary Robert Kutak, who cultivated in his protege a love of art.

In 1974 Perlman left NU to teach at the University of Virginia Law School. He returned to NU in 1983 to head up the Nebraska Law College, a position he held for 15 years. He served as the university’s interim chancellor in 2000 before being named chancellor in 2001.

Obviously, much of his life is bound up in the university. Because the chancellor’s job continues to engage him he doesn’t have any plans to step down soon.

“I’m still excited about the possibilities. I care a lot about the university so it’s not an abstraction to me, it’s a passion,” he said from his office in UNL’s Canfield Administration Building

Being a native son, he said, probably opens some doors he might otherwise find closed.

“I think the fact I’m a Nebraskan gives me entree into some circles easier than an outsider would find.”

Perlman kept a low profile until the merry-go-round of athletic directors and football coaches the past 10 years. That’s when he became a focal point of attention. Perhaps for the first time then the power he wields was apparent for all to see. There he was intervening in what had become a circus of speculation and vitriol involving the topsy turvy fortunes of that precious commodity — Husker football. He acted as both architect and messenger for a sea change in NU athletics that continues making waves today.

The added scrutiny  doesn’t much phase him. He knows it comes with the territory, though it can be a bit much.

“I’m used to it by now I guess. I think in part lawyers are trained to handle those kinds of circumstances, so that doesn’t give me any discomfort. The discomfort of being a public figure is probably not when you’re in public but the fact that you’re always in the public eye. I can’t go to the grocery store without people giving me advice about the football team and things like that.

“I never thought I’d be on the sports pages. I didn’t have the athletic talent to get there”

It’s not as though Perlman was invisible before the beleaguered Pederson was let go and the beloved Osborne brought back as the athletic department’s savior. Perlman had, after all, been involved in the machinations that followed Bill Byrne’s departure as AD and the much hyped arrival of native son Pederson. But when Pederson fired head football coach Frank Solich and replaced him with Bill Callahan Perlman was in the background while Pederson was out front. Critics of Pederson would assert it was just more grandstanding and arrogance on display.

Ironically, the unprepossessing Perlman took center stage when he gave Pederson the boot and brought Osborne back into the fold. It’s worked out that Perlman’s returned to the public spotlight since then. First, there was the housecleaning he began with Pederson’s ouster and that Osborne finished by axing Callahan, replacing him with fan favorite Bo Pelini. After the Callahan debacle, it’s certain the Pelini hire didn’t happen without Perlman’s approval.

Then he pushed for the Nebraska State Fair to make way for the Innovation Campus.

More recently, as NU’s Big 12 Conference affiliation grew shaky in the midst of possible league defections and the specter of Texas dominance, Perlman and Osborne teamed up to take NU in a dramatic new direction. Last summer the two men announced the stunning news NU was leaving the contentious Big 12 and joining the solidarity of the Big 10. It turned out the pair had worked feverishly behind the scenes with Big 10 commissioner Jim Delany to petition the conference for NU’s admission. Everything fell into place quicker than anyone anticipated. The switch took many by surprise and the bold move made national headlines.

So it was that the pensive, pin-striped Perlman once more found himself splashed in print and television stories, this time spinning the news of how the Big 10 would be a better cultural fit for NU than the Big 12.

Perlman, a lawyer by training, is expert at parsing words in order to be diplomatic and so he’s careful when explaining why the Big 10 is ultimately a better home for NU.

“Well, at the most fundamental level it’s a feeling on the back of your neck that you’re among common friends, not to suggest we weren’t friendly with the Big 12,” he said.

Perlman feels the Big 10 alliance is a cohesive match because like NU the conference’s other schools are Midwestern public research universities with similar institutional histories and goals when it comes to both academics and athletics .

“When you talk about the Big 12,” he said, “you can’t say that because you’ve got some Midwestern institutions, you’ve got some agriculturally-based land grant institutions, you’ve got Texas, which in many ways is an institution all of its own, with widely divergent reputations. You’ve got Texas Tech, which is different…The schools up and down that corridor are very, very different, so there is not a common culture. And it’s not a bad thing — I mean, they’re all fine institutions — but they’re very different. It’s just that in the Big Ten we just kind of felt that it was (a common culture).”

He acknowledges that NU “will be, next to Northwestern, the smallest institution in the Big 10,” adding, “But we’re still a public research university that fits that environment and that has a good history and tradition of intercollegiate athletics.”

There’s a prestige factor in all this that cannot be discounted because all 11 schools NU is joining are rated among the top academic and research institutions in America, along with most having strong athletic programs.

“Well, I mean you are who you associate with in some respects,” Perlman said, “and so there’s a stature of the Big 10…there’s a kind brand it has in common…”

He said those high standards give NU new avenues for excellence.

“It elevates the opportunities you have. Now we’ve got to take advantage of them, but at least it opens those opportunities. The Big 10 has traditionally had broad institutional cooperation in which it’s focused to provide collaborative activities within the Big 10, which the Big 12 does not.”

When it looked like the Big 12 might lose Texas and other anchor schools, suddenly the conference appeared fragile, which left Nebraska in a vulnerable spot. With things up in the air, Perlman and Osborne were not about to let NU hang in the wind, subject to an uncertain fate, and so they sought a stable new home for the school should the league dissolve.

Nebraska and the Big 10 had always shared a mutual admiration. Bob Devaney thought it a natural marriage years ago, before the Big 8 morphed into the Big 12, and before the Big 10 added Penn State. Then, in 2010, circumstances arose that soon made the prospect of NU being in the Big 10 relevant, even logical. For NU it meant security. For the Big 10 it meant another major player in its family.

“Yes, stability was critical for us because we didn’t have any place to go,” said Perlman. “I mean, we’re here, we have a good brand, that seemed to be clear. I think we could go in many directions, but if we were playing in the Big East for example the burden on our kids and our fans would be terrible. So you sit here and you look and you say, What are your options? There weren’t very many.”

At least not many that made sense or that were congruent with NU’s profile, whereas the Big 10 was a mirror image of the school and offered close proximity.

“Again, the culture fit,” said Perlman. “We seem to be a comfortable fit with the Big10 institutions. There’s some geographic adjacency, and that’s important.”

Perlman’s quest for a more secure footing in the athletic-academic arena was not unlike his wooing back Osborne, the winningest coach in NU history, from retirement to provide a calm center amid a storm of discontent.

“It was a very disruptive time for the program. We had to make a change. I had no hint that he was available or would be interested,” Perlman said of Osborne.

It turned out Osborne was both available and interested. The result was just what Perlman hoped.

“The value Tom brought clearly was stability,” the NU chancellor said.

Perlman said Osborne benefited from having “the confidence” of NU regents, administrators, coaches and student-athletes as well as university-athletic department supporters.

The experience of changing head football coaches and pursuing entry in the Big 10 brought Perlman and Osborne in close contact.

“We’ve built a working relationship that we didn’t have before,” said Perlman. “I think we have respect for each other. We’ve gone through a number of issues together and I think we both recognize we each contribute to getting those issues resolved. He has become a very fine athletic director. He has a good sense of the program beyond football, which was a concern of some, but he’s been very supportive of the range of athletic programs and he’s done a good job of managing the finances” the facilities, the coaches.

Osborne returns the compliment, saying, “I find Harvey Perlman to be someone who is a very bright person who thinks things through and does not say much until he has formulated his thoughts very carefully. He is able to be firm when the situation calls for it and is a good communicator.”

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Some suggest that NU and other schools with big-time athletic programs find themselves in the equivalent of an ever escalating arms race that requires more and more expenditures on sports. When is enough, enough?

The two men, both raised in small Nebraska towns in post-World War Ii America — Perlman in York and Osborne in Hastings — share similar values and experiences based in humility and frugality. Yet they find themselves overseeing mammoth expansion programs and budgets.

“There’s clearly excesses in intercollegiate athletics,” Perlman said. “The idea that we’re competing with other schools and that you have to make investments in order to compete is not one I’m upset about. We’re doing that on the academic side all the time. It’s just not as visible. We’re competing for facilities, we’re competing for faculty. If you’re going to go out and attract top talent you’ve got to pay their price. You have to invest in the facilities.

“It’s a very competitive world in higher education across the board. Athletics is just where the numbers are larger. We’re fortunate here that the athletic department is self-supporting (thanks to enormous football revenues and generous booster donations). We don’t have to use tax dollars or tuition revenues to subsidize the department. In fact, they subsidize the academic side in a variety of different ways, so to that extent it’s hard to say, Let’s not compete. I mean, Nebraska has a position within the constellation of athletic powers, and as long as we’re successful we ought to try and compete.”

Some also question if in building a great university a great athletic department is really necessary.

“You can do it without one,” said Perlman. “In our circumstance I think we’ve achieved a lot of synergies between academics and athletics. Moving into the Big 10 is the clearest example. We wouldn’t have got into the Big 10 were it not for our brand on the athletic side, but we also wouldn’t have got into the Big 10 if we hadn’t had made the progress on the academic side that we’ve made in the last 10 years.”

Perlman points with pride to several advances the school’s made during his tenure, including more research grants, greater international engagement, improved educational programs and a growing enrollment that now exceeds 24,000.

Seal of the University of Nebraska

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He said NU’s influence and reach in areas such as agriculture and engineering extend across the globe.

“We may be small but we’re still a force in the world in terms of our presence in China, India, Africa…”

Sometimes the gains made in academics get obscured by what’s going on with athletics. He said the challenge is that the imprint of athletics “is so loud and prominent every day. The significance is clear — you win or you lose. A lot of the great things that happen on the academic side are not as clear, it’s more indirect, it’s more long term.” He favors “trying to even out the voice within the institution” to create more of a balance between academic and athletic achievement and recognition.

While football revenues and private donations keep NU athletics in the black and competitive with other elite programs, the university’s state-allocated academic operational budget has been subject to almost annual cuts as the state’s coffers have suffered in recent years. In a public address Perlman compared the budget slashing to the torture-execution method known as lingchi or death by a thousand cuts, saying, “I do not think a university can constantly cut its way to greatness.”

He neither wishes to sound like an alarmist nor an unbridled optimist. Instead, like the attorney he is he provides a considered pro and con analysis of the situation.

“I think there are significant cuts we’ve made that have not damaged the university for a variety of reasons. Every businessman will tell you every once in a while a budget cut is not a bad idea, just to be more efficient. Most of our cuts probably haven’t made the university worse off, some probably made it better, but as I’ve said you can’t do that continually and expect to be successful.”

Asked when diminishing returns set in and he answered:

“I don’t know, but there is a point at which quality does suffer. Our policy has been not to reduce the quality of all programs and cut across the board. We have in fact narrowed the scope — we’ve eliminated programs. I’d much rather eliminate a program then mandate, for example, a 4 percent across the board budget cut. You can’t get anywhere doing that. At some point I think you start to do real damage to your university, and more significantly real damage to the state of Nebraska.

“To the extent I cut programs that means the students and graduates of high schools in Nebraska who want that program are going to leave the state. Obviously one of the key needs for the state of Nebraska is to keep young people here, and you’re not going to do that if you continue to cut.”

As a small population state, Nebraska’s particularly impacted by the so-called “brain drain” that’s seen many of its best and brightest high school grads leave to attend college out of state. Perlman said NU’s “doing our part” to reverse the trend.

“I think for the most part we’re meeting that challenge. If you look at the top percentage of high school graduates in Nebraska who stay in the state and come to the university we’ve seen a significant increase in the last 10 years. If you look at non-resident students that are being attracted to the university that’s on a significant increase.”

He said these gains are due to “a lot of hard work by a lot of people across the whole university,” including faculty engaged in the recruiting effort.

Just a few months after NU’s entrance in the Big 10 Perlman noted the school’s enrollment spiked with more enrollees from Big 10 country than ever before.

“Coincidentally we’ve been very successful in trying to build pipelines for undergraduate enrollment in cities that happen to be in the Big 10 (Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, et cetera), and we see an uptick there now that we’re in the Big 10.”

Being in a tradition-rich power conference and having high profile, elite football or basketball teams that consistently win and net national media exposure can and does help in recruiting students.

“It’s not so crazy,” said Perlman. “It has an impact. I think what most people don’t think about is that intercollegiate athletics, particularly football, has such a kind of central place in the culture of America. We shouldn’t be surprised if students looking for a place to get their undergraduate education consider the entire environment that they’re in and one of those would be the success of the athletic programs.”

Recruiting top students and faculty is a priority for NU but there must be sufficient rewards in place to secure and retain them. Perlman suggests that just as NU must prepare students for careers, employers must ensure there are enough jobs to keep young people here once they earn their degree. He sees gains there too.

“For our college graduates there is a better chance they will stay in Nebraska for the jobs that are available,” he said. “That’s why Innovation Campus is so important, because we’re trying to do our part in terms of creating the kinds of jobs that college graduates would find attractive.”

Perlman has been a promoter of UNL’s Innovation Campus — envisioned as a multi-million dollar initiative on the sprawling former state fairgrounds site. It’s hoped a mix of public-private enterprises, both established and start-up, will do business and research there. The goal is that a critical mass of stimulus actviity will generate economic development through the products and services companies offer, the jobs they create and the taxes they pay.

“What we want to accomplish out there is clear,” he said, “and that is we want to leverage the research activity in the university to bring greater economic growth to Nebraska by getting private sector companies to locate on the property and to be adjacent to that research effort. That’s the idea. Can we fill up almost 200 acres with that kind of activity? I don’t know. We’ll try.”

In terms of what types of companies might locate there, he said “food, water and energy are the most likely attractives because that’s where our strengths are and that’s where Nebraska is, but we see other areas that could have potential. Software development is not out of the range of possibility. We don’t have any limits on what (might work).” He said NU hasn’t yet aggressively pursued potential companies “because more planning needs to be done to address the site’s infrastructure needs…” A faculty advisory committee is looking at the best ways to combine public-private efforts there.

By any measure, Innovation Campus will take time to develop.

“You look at the Research Triangle in North Carolina, it took them 50 years to get where they are,” he said. “I think we’ll move faster because the world is turning faster. Private sector companies are looking for universities” as partners and facilitators and hosts for incubation and innovation. “That process is ongoing. Fifty years ago that probably wasn’t true. I would hope that it would move quickly, but we’ve said to 20-25 years.”

The project is a stakeholder’s dream or nightmare depending on what happens.

“Some of us who were ardently in favor of getting the land and moving the state fair probably have a lot more personal reputation at stake on its success,” he said. “Realistically the university could be a great university without Innovation Campus but we wouldn’t have taken advantage of the opportunities that are available.”

Recruiting and keeping top faculty is a priority and there UNL could do more, Perlman said, to make it difficult for teachers to say no or to leave, though he says the school’s held its own in this regard.

“I think faculty salaries are not fully competitive with where they should be. With most other public universities incurring significant budget reductions over the last two or three years Nebraska’s been in relatively good shape, so we haven’t seen a lot of attrition.”

Recruiting and retaining good people is “key,” he said. All the innovation and efficiency in the world doesn’t matter, he said, “if you can’t attract talent.”

Despite some disadvantages NU has compared with its Big 10 brethren in terms of the state’s small population and the school’s smaller enrollment numbers and proportionally smaller alumni base, Nebraska finds ways to remain competitive. Perlman said the same work ethic and generosity that the state is imbued with permeates the university’s faculty and staff and supporters. That commitment, he said, gives him “not only a sense of pride but a great sense of relief.” “It is incredible,” he said, adding, “There’s a set of issues that other university presidents have to deal with that I don’t.”

If anything, he faults NU and Nebraskans for being too modest and reticent.

“I think it’s our traditional Midwestern reluctance to set really high goals and ambitions and to celebrate our successes.”

With opportunities come challenges, and vice versa. For example, based on the metrics that go into rating academic and research performance NU sits at the bottom of the Big 10. And while Perlman has said it’s not such a bad thing to be last among such prestigious company, he’s quick to add, “We’re not content to be last either — we’re not going to be last 10 years from now the way I see it.”

Perlman reminds skeptics that as much as NU courted the Big 10 the conference coveted the school. In other words, it wasn’t only a case of what NU could gain from being in the conference, it was what the league could gain from NU’s presence.

“I think it’s the brand,” Perlman said by way of explanation. “You know all the speculation was that Nebraska wouldn’t have a chance to get in the Big 10 because of the number of television sets was low relative to other schools that were mentioned (as prospective Big 10 additions). And that comes back to the assumption that all that university presidents worry about is the money, and it’s not true. Money’s significant, it’s a competitive thing, but it isn’t everything. In fact it wasn’t everything in the Big 10 when the school presidents voted (to accept NU as a new member).

“We’re a school with a good brand. We might not have a lot of television sets but we’ve probably got a lot of eyeballs across the country. We draw well” (both in the stands and in TV ratings).

Unlike the AD and coaching changes that sparked controversy and sometimes harsh attacks, the conference change was almost uniformly embraced.

“We have gotten almost no criticism within the state of Nebraska for this move,” said Perlman. “My wife continues to remind me that we can go 6-6 next year (in football), but right now everyone is pretty pleased. I’m surprised by the number of comments I get that recognize this was a major step for the academic side of the university as well as the athletic side.”

He forecasts the university’s leadership role will be ever more crucial for the state. He said the fact that NU is a close reflection of the industrious people it serves positions it to be an influential player in Nebraska’s economic growth.

“You would think its major institution would be that way and you wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “It also gives you an opportunity to lead. I mean, that’s the thing, especially in this economy — if you don’t have a strong research university taking a strong leadership role moving forward I don’t think we’ll be successful. I believe that. President Obama believes it, the minister of China believes it, the prime minister of India…The countries that want to be competitive are making major investments in higher education.”

He feels confident the University of Nebraska is poised to lead the way.

“I think it is coming into its own. The quality, the productivity, the ability to be competitive across the country is significant.”

A Mentoring We Will Go


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Mentoring programs, whether community or school-based , along with mentoring done more informally, on one’s own, offer effective ways for reaching at-risk youth. The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about 10 or 12 years ago profiles some mentoring efforts in my hometown of Omaha.  I cannot recall much about the assignment other than the passion and commitment of the people involved as mentors to make a difference in young people‘s lives.

A Mentoring We Will Go

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A sweltering June night in the inner city finds a rag-tag basketball game under way in the Adams Park Community Center gymnasium. Here, in this hot house of testosterone, a lone female watches from the sidelines, itching, like the men around her, for a chance to play.

Maurtice Ivy is a tall, poised woman of 31. She mingles easily with the crowd. A righteous sister perfectly accepted as one of the guys. And why not? She grew up a tomboy among them and is a bona fide player to boot.  The former Central High School all-state performer was a collegiate basketball star with the Lady Huskers and played professionally long before TV discovered the women’s game.

This night, like so many before, she’s brought along a young man she regards as a son, Rickey Loftin. The lean, hard-bodied 16-year-old harbors big-time hoop dreams of his own. The junior-to-be at South High School is anxious to strut his stuff. When the pair finally do take the court, she feeds him the rock again and again, highlighted by a slick one-handed bounce pass from the top of the key to a driving Rickey in the lane. Count it. These two anticipate each other’s moves and moods more than mere teammates do. More like soulmates.

It’s that way off the court, too, where Ivy mentors Rickey. In that capacity she serves as friend, counsel, guide, nag and personal coach.

After the gym clears out she “fusses at” him about his showboating and points out a flaw in his shooting technique. He listens good-naturedly and adjusts his shot. “That’s it,” she says approvingly.

Maurtice Ivy

The pair first met when she coached an Omaha Housing Authority team he played on. They hit it right off, and three years later they’re nearly inseparable. She attends all his athletic and school events. She helped pay for a black college tour he attended in May and is looking to enroll him in summer basketball camps where he’ll be exposed to better coaching and competition. She’s been there for him at every turn, including a tragedy.

“A couple years ago Rickey called me up one morning and asked me to come get him,” Ivy recalls. “I was wondering why he wasn’t in school and he said, ‘My dad was shot and killed last night. The only person I want to be around right now is you.’ I was speechless. It took everything in me not to break down and cry. At that point, I hadn’t realized how I had impacted him as a coach. And I just felt like that God was placing him in my life for a reason, and I needed to pick up the ball and be as positive as I could be.

“Rickey was hurting and he really didn’t know how to deal with that.  Since then, I’ve really played a role in his life. I just try to be a strong support system for him. Our relationship has truly grown over the years.”

Ivy is among thousands of adults in the Omaha metropolitan area who maintain a one-to-one mentoring relationship with an at-risk youth. What follows is an exploration of different mentoring relationships and how these relationships follow certain familiar patterns, yet retain their own individual dynamic. Of how mentoring brings adults, kids and resources together in often surprising ways. Of how good mentoring isn’t a magic elixer or quick fix, but an investment of time that pays off slowly but surely.

Who are mentors? They’re individuals lending the benefit of their experience to a younger person struggling to reach his/her potential. They can be parents, teachers, coaches, professionals, laborers or anyone with a commitment to making a difference in the life of a child.

Some, like Ivy, mentor on their own — as an extension of their life and work. Others do it through the growing number of formal mentoring programs offered by schools, community service agencies and corporations. For example, adults from all walks of life mentor students in Tom Osborne’s school-based Teammates program, currently serving the Lincoln Public Schools and now gearing to go statewide.

All Our Kids, Inc. of Omaha recruits and trains mentors from around the state, offers a scholarship pool and sponsors a mentoring program of its own that has grown from serving 19 youths in 1989 to 100 today. Since 1992 AOK has trained some 1,000 mentors from 60-plus organizations at 50 workshops and hopes to reach more through its new Mentoring Institute, says executive director Michael Hanson.

This surge in mentoring is part of a larger movement in which clearinghouse organizations like the National Mentoring Partnership provide training materials and funding referrals in support of local efforts. Several Omahans involved in mentoring, including Hanson, were delegates at a 1997 Presidential summit that examined the most effective ways adults can serve America’s youth. The summit launched the Colin Powell-led volunteer initiative, America’s Promise, a catalyst for linking adults with kids in positive, community-building ways like mentoring.

A Method to Mentoring

The needs of a specific community often dictate the shape mentoring takes. The Chicano Awareness Center’s Family Mentoring Project serves first-generation Hispanic-American families in south Omaha, meaning mentors like Maria Chavez must be a “big sister” to Diana Gonzalez, 12, as well as a bilingual liaison to the girl’s parents, Aman and Maria, as they deal with language, immigration, job, education and social service issues. Joe Edmonson’s Youth Outreach Program, housed in north Omaha’s Fontenelle Park Pavillion, gives kids the safety, discipline and nurturing the area’s gang-ridden streets do not. Edmonson builds kids’ minds and bodies via athletic, multi-media and recreation activities.

Programs generally try striking a balance between structure and spontaneity. The US West-sponsored Monarch Connection, matching employees with McMillan Magnet School students, awards achievement badges to kids completing community service projects with their mentors, and encourages participants to spend other leisure time together.

Some programs strive to be part of youths’ lives from elementary school through college, others target a shorter time frame. Scholarship and other financial aid is sometimes provided as an incentive for children to excel. To qualify for aid, kids must usually honor a signed agreement detailing certain standards of personal behavior and school performance.

Whatever its face, however, mentoring is seen by practitioners as one proven, prevention-based approach to the widespread problems facing America’s youth, although supporters agree it’s no panacea, much less substitute for quality parenting or professional counseling.

“I think in today’s society parents aren’t always there, and not necessarily because they don’t care or they’re bad. Economically, a lot of parents are put in positions where they have to work two or three jobs or opposite shifts. Part of the fabric of the family is missing. A lot of kids nowadays don’t learn at home about manners and etiquette, and about  consequences and encouragement and those kinds of things,” says AOK’s

Michael Hanson. “Often we hear from teachers or case workers that a kid’s parents are gone all day. The key is we need to do a better job of linking kids to the adult world in a way that makes sense to them.

“I think mentoring is being recognized as something that’s happened for a long time, but it just wasn’t called that, and now we’re formalizing it and trying to add some structure to it. That’s why I think its powerful. It’s the basis for everything we do as social animals. We form relationships, and a mentor is a special kind of relationship. If we look back in our own lives we all had someone who helped us see something in ourselves we couldn’t see or helped us make a decision we might not have made.”

Hanson says today’s mentoring efforts attempt “to artificially recreate something that happens naturally” for most youths, but that doesn’t for others. Without mentoring, he feels, kids fall through the cracks. That’s why programs like AOK work with school counselors and social service experts to identify youths who could most benefit from a mentor. Typically, it’s a bright student underachieving due to personal/family difficulties.

Doing the Right Thing

Mentoring is also a form of community activism. Of citizen helping citizen. Of giving back. Although Maurtice Ivy works in west Omaha (at Career Design), she still resides and takes an active role in the near north side community she grew up in, coaching youth athletic teams, sponsoring a 3-on-3 basketball tournament and mentoring kids like Rickey. “As a young community leader it’s my obligation to try and make a pathway to make things better,” she says. “It’s all about trying to do the right thing. And it’s just remarkable how receptive kids are when they know you’re sincere and doing everything you can do to try and help them.”

She has seen the difference mentoring’s made for Rickey. Thanks in part to her tutelage, he’s harnessed his mental and physical gifts and become a top scholar-athlete with lofty dreams for the future. He can’t imagine life without her.

“We have like a bond between each other,” he says. “She’s helped me not only with my physical skills on the basketball court, but mentally too by helping me keep my focus in the game and on school. She inspires me to keep getting good grades. She’s made me see how I can get a scholarship to college. I’d like maybe to be an engineer or an accountant. She’s like my second mom. I feel comfortable calling her my step-mom.”

Ivy, single and childless, doesn’t pretend to be Rickey’s mother.  Mentors sometimes tread a fine line between being a friend and usurping the parental role. When Ivy started working with Rickey, she sensed his mother, a single working parent of three, viewed her as a threat. “I can understand that,” Ivy says, “and I didn’t want it to be that way, so I would back off, but then I’d be there for him when he needed me. I told her basically, ‘View me as an extension of you.’ She’s done a wonderful job with him. His mom is now a lot more supportive of what I’m doing in his life. I just try to give him direction. I try to place him around individuals and resources that can give him the assistance he needs. I see the impact I’ve made in his life and that is truly the most rewarding thing. When I see him excelling, I feel joy. ‘There’s my boy!’”

In return, Rickey looks up to Ivy. “She’s a black independent woman.  No one can force her to do anything she doesn’t want to. She’s athletic. She’s working on graduate school now. She gives me advice on anything I need to talk about. I feel like I can always depend on her,” he says.

Reaching Out and Giving In

Trust must be present before a mentoring bond can be cemented. Getting there involves a feeling-out process. It can be a daunting task reaching sullen kids who are already wary of adults. According to Hanson, “A lot times mentors are more scared of the relationship than kids are because it’s a big responsibility. And if they feel they’re not doing a good enough job or don’t know what to expect in terms of working with a young person, they’ll give up.”

Jeff Russell had two AOK mentors give up on him in junior high before being paired with a third, David Vana. Already burned twice, Jeff held back. “I was really hesitant about getting involved with another because I figured he wasn’t going to stick around for very long anyway,” Jeff, now 20, says.

Vana, an Inacom business analyst, felt the young man’s reluctance. “He didn’t have a whole lot of faith in the program based on his experiences with his first two mentors, so I think he was a little cautious before he warmed up to me. I think the previous mentors tried to push him, and with Jeff it just didn’t work because he had a tendency to rebel. Before I started giving him advice and stuff, I wanted him to trust me and accept me. I didn’t want to come down too hard on him, so we started doing things together like going to hockey games and we got comfortable with each other.”

Before Vana came into his life, Jeff was a juvenile delinquent in the making. After the death of his mother upon entering 5th grade, Jeff, who never knew his father, was raised by an aunt and uncle. Things were fine at home, but he was failing high school and hanging with a bad crowd, so counselors recommended him for mentoring. “The friends I had were not exactly…going anywhere. In fact, they’re still not anywhere,” he says. “One of them is in jail for murder. Another one has many drug convictions. Another one can’t hold a job. I was very fortunate to get out of it when I did.”

Upon first meeting Jeff, Vana was struck by his fatalistic attitude. “When I asked about college, he said, and I’ll never forget it, ‘People like me don’t go to college.’ That’s when I focused on building his self-esteem and confidence. He made a lot of progress. Jeff definitely is a success story.”

Jeff credits Vana and Vana’s wife Noreen for helping him turn things around. “They’ve been very influential in my life. Whenever I’d have a question — school-related, work-related, anything — I’d call and we’d talk. They’ve been there for me a lot. They really took time out for me.” With their help he applied himself, raising his GPA from 0.32 to 3.20 and graduating on time. Currently taking a break from his studies at Metro Community College, where he’s working toward an associate’s degree in horticulture, Jeff oversees a gardening crew at a private estate and hopes to one day have his own landscaping business/nursery. AOK is paying his college tuition.

When he looks back to where he was headed — a likely drop-out — he sees how far he’s come and where he yet aspires to go. “I could have very easily followed that path. I still could revert back to that path, but I just have to remind myself of my goals. This program showed me that if I do what I should do, I can actually get someplace in my life.”

Trial and Error

Even when mentoring works, there are still power struggles, communication gaps, unrealistic expectations and bumpy spots along the way. “You can’t just pull two people’s names out of a hat — a mentor and a mentee — and expect their personalities to mesh perfectly,” says Vana. “It’s important to remember every kid is different. You can’t apply some mentoring template to every relationship. If it isn’t working, recognize that and make a new match.”

Bad matches do occur. They’re bound to, since aside from a screening/interview process, pairings are based on instinct and educated guesses. “With some, there’s no chemistry there. Others walk a fine line, with neither side willing to get real close or comfortable. But there’s been some extremely good matches too,” says Roz Moyer, US West manager of Community Affairs/ Employee Relations and Monarch Connection director. She says when things don’t click or mentors quit, affected youth are reassigned until a solid match takes hold. The challenge then becomes regaining the child’s trust. It can take time.

Moyer says mentors often have a sense of failure even when the match succeeds and the child thrives. “I think part of that is the kids don’t run up and say, ‘Thank you, you did such a good job.’ I tell the mentors not to expect them to do that. You’ll see it in other ways — in the success they have in school or by a good word every once in a while. You just have to know you’re doing a good job.”

Monarch mentor Linda Verner, a US West Finance executive, has at times doubted the job she’s done with former McMillan and current North High student Carrie Laney, 15, whom she’s mentored since 1996. Verner says, “I really wasn’t sure how much I had to contribute.”

Carrie, though, is certain of Verner’s impact. “I went through a lot of family and school problems the last couple years and Linda gave me a lot of good advice. I can talk about a lot more things with her than I can with my parents. She’s always told me she’s proud of me. She boosted my self-esteem so I would believe in myself and strive to get good grades, and I did.” Carrie plans attending college, with a goal of becoming a pediatrician.

Verner says if mentors just stick with it, good things happen. “I did not understand how much I would get out of it. Part of it is the enjoyment of setting goals with a young person and then getting them accomplished and feeling like you’ve contributed a little bit something.”

Because mentoring doesn’t follow a formula, sponsors offer support when things come a cropper. “Mentors can get discouraged,” Hanson says. “The challenge is tempering their expectations, but at the same time maintaining a level of enthusiasm that will help keep them there for the long haul. We can help prepare them for the fact kids are not going to fall down on their knees and thank you for saving them. They may not even acknowledge you at all. I mean, some of the kids we work with really need a lot of social skills. We have to teach kids how to look a person in the eye, shake their hand and greet them.”

Since mentoring only works if both parties are active participants,sponsors stress why each person shares responsibility for the relationship.

“Both the mentor and the mentee have to have a willingness to forge ahead. Neither one can give up on making that connection and forming that relationship. As a mentor you have got to be dedicated enough to overcome obstacles and focus on that kid. As a kid you’ve got to be as committed as the mentor in attending all the functions and doing all the things needed to make this thing go,” says Moyer. “We tell the kids right off, ‘We cannot change your life. You have to change your life. We can help you. We can guide you. We can open some doors. But you have to be the one who makes the changes.”

“We do group activities so that we can see kids and mentors interact,” Hanson says. “The kid may only say five words to his mentor, and you can see the adult is getting frustrated. The mentor may come to me and say, ‘Gee, I’m just not making any progress. This kid doesn’t like me. I don’t know what to do.’ Yet, if the mentor quits coming to the meetings, the first thing the kid will do is say, ‘Where’s my mentor?’ They’ll know when you’re gone.”

New Beginnings

Karnell Perkins felt betrayed after his first three mentors gave up on him. His family was in disarray. School was a bust. Things looked bleak for the black north Omaha native before he finally connected with AOK mentors Mike and Judy Thesing, a white suburban Omaha couple who practically adopted him. It all started when Thesing, president of America First Financial Advisors, was recruited by America First Cos. head, Michael Yanney, to mentor kids at McMillan Junior High (now McMillan Magnet School) in Yanney’s Kids (the forerunner of AOK). Eventually, Thesing was assigned Karnell, by then a struggling Burke High student reeling from an increasingly chaotic home life and three unsuccessful matches.

Michael Yanney

“Before I met them I was bounced around from mentor to mentor,” Karnell says. “When I finally got Mike and Judy, they were different than the average mentor who sees their kids every once in a while for lunch or a movie or helping with their homework. But Mike and Judy, for sure, go above and beyond. They’ve meant a lot to me.”

But as the problems in Karnell’s family deepened, he was in danger of flunking out of school. “His unwed mother was on the fringe of being in trouble with the law for numerous reasons. There was never any role modeling or anybody who really cared what he was doing or how he was doing. There was never any money or transportation. He was the oldest of three boys and he felt responsible for his brothers. He worked after school, so school was the last thing he focused on,” Thesing explains.

That’s when Karnell’s mentors dramatically intervened in his life. “My wife and I took him by the ears and made him live with us the latter part of his senior year. We put together a program he was to abide by in order to get through school. We made sure he had transportation and that his academic requirements were fulfilled before he could go do anything else. It was a disciplinary and structural change for him, but I think he realized at that point that we really cared and were willing to do whatever it took to make sure he had every opportunity to be successful.”

The change in environment was profound, and so were the changes in Karnell. “I went from one culture in north Omaha to a totally different culture in west Omaha, but race was never an issue. Mike and Judy let me know there’s a better way of life than what I had. They gave me stability. They kind of became like mom and dad.”

There was a period of adjustment, however. “At first things were a little chilly, but as time went on and we did stuff together and he got to know us, things just evolved,” Thesing says. There’ve been road bumps since, like the time Karnell, now a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, sloughed off in his studies and was placed on academic probation. He soon felt the wrath of the intense, goal-oriented Thesing. Karnell, who describes himself as “laidback,” says Thesing’s constant “do-it-now” prodding got old. “Sometimes I was like, ‘Hey dude, chill out.’ But I do know he’s trying to help me accomplish good things. If I didn’t have him I think I’d be a slacker.”

Thesing says working through such differences is worth the end result. “It can be pretty frustrating, but if you can get past those barriers and develop a real solid relationship, the reward is you’ll be making a difference in someone’s life.” He’s seen the change: “I’ve always been proud of Karnell, but I’ve seen him mature quite a lot. Now he realizes the value of an education, the value of hard work and the value of discipline. By most measures, especially given his background, he’s doing outstanding.”

Karnell, 21, pulled his grades up enough to not only graduate high school, but earn a full college scholarship — courtesy of AOK. The finance major is on pace to graduate from UNL next year, which will mark a family milestone. “No one in my family has ever graduated college,” he notes. “Now, it’s like I’ve set a standard for my brothers. William and Langston are planning to go too. That makes me feel really good.”

Having seen the ups and downs of mentoring, he feels an adult must first earn a child’s confidence before being called a friend: “You need a person who’s sincere. You can’t be fake. You have to sincerely care about kids and want to help out, even if you don’t have all the answers. You have to seriously lead by example. And you have to want to do it from the heart.”

Thesing agrees, adding: “These kids just need someone that cares about them. A lot of them have gone through their whole life without anyone really caring. Throwing money at these things is not really the answer. It’s got to be a genuine commitment of time. Kids need your time more than anything else, and the earlier you get involved the better.”

He expects to remain a part of Karnell’s life for as long as he’s around. “I see it as a lifetime commitment. I look at him as a son almost.” The Thesings have, in fact, gained partial custody of Karnell’s youngest brother, Langston, 10, who now lives with them.

“He really likes being there,” Karnell says. “Every night I go to sleep I thank God for Mike and Judy…and all the people who’ve helped us out.  Their hearts are so big.”

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