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Chancellor started in Nebraska Legislature before serving UNK

While in the legislature, Doug Kristensen helped bring then-Kearney State into the University system in 1991. Courtesy of UNK Archives

Before becoming the chancellor at UNK, Doug Kristensen got his start in law – an interest he credits to his mother. 

Growing up on a farm in Minden, his family had no air conditioning. Kristensen thinks his mother took him and his brother to the library for two reasons: because they had to be quiet and because it had air conditioning.

“We read a lot,” Kristensen said. “I started to get a fascination with current events and it seemed to me that so much of that was tied to the law.”

With his interest in current events and his best friends also having an interest in law school, Kristensen’s pursuit of law school came naturally. He has suspicions about what one family member thought.

“My grandmother I think was embarrassed that I wanted to be a lawyer,” Kristensen said. “She thought being a chicken thief was a better deal, but I really had a tremendous interest in that (law).”

When heading to college, Kristensen said he moved as far away as he could afford – UNL – and swore he’d never go back to Minden. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from UNL and his Doctor of Jurisprudence from Drake University, Kristensen headed to Carroll, Iowa. 

After a year and a half, the local district judge in Minden talked him into coming back. Kristensen and a partner opened up a law firm, and he became county attorney to earn some extra cash. 

“My first case was a first-degree murder case that I promptly lost partly due to a surprise witness,” Kristensen said. “The County Attorney’s Association wanted to change the law so that never happened again, and I turned out to be the one who would go testify because I clerked for the Judiciary Committee.”

Kristensen said that’s when he realized he’d run for the legislature.

“I’d always kind of thought, ‘Oh, someday I’ll run but I’ll wait until I’m old and retired – like now,’” Kristensen said. “I ran against an incumbent and I won. I thought I’d serve four years and come home. Fourteen years later, I’m knee-deep in the legislature, I’ve been speaker for five sessions and you know, where do you go?”

Getting elected to the legislature was a turning point for Kristensen, and he said it allowed him to “meet the state of Nebraska.” His time in the legislature taught him patience and the idea of process, two lessons that he took with him when becoming UNK’s chancellor.

When the chancellor job came open, Kristensen thought, “What do I have to lose?” and applied. He said he’s not sure how they chose him for the job, but he’s glad they did.

In serving in the legislature and as chancellor, Kristensen said his work felt both “important and fulfilling.”

“I never dreamed that I would stay in the legislature for 14 years,” Kristensen said. “I never dreamed I’d be speaker and I clearly had no view that I was going to be chancellor.”

Galen Hadley, interim senior vice chancellor for academic affairs when Kristensen was appointed in 2002 and a member of the Nebraska Legislature from 2009-2017, said the support Kristensen received spoke of his abilities.

“He was elected for three terms, which I think is a real sign of the respect his fellow senators had for him and for the job he did,” Hadley said. “I truly believe that if Chancellor Kristensen had not opted to become chancellor of UNK, he would have ended up being governor, U.S. senator or U.S. member of the House of Representatives.”

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Jenna Heinz
Jenna Heinz, Reporter
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