President’s Monthly Op-Ed: Dream with me about a stronger University of Nebraska
By Hank Bounds
This week I am honored and humbled to begin my service as the seventh president of the University of Nebraska. The opportunity to lead one of America’s great universities truly is one of a lifetime and I am excited to build on our rich history of serving as a catalyst for change in the lives of people in Nebraska and around the world.
I will spend my initial days as president traveling the state – meeting many of you, spending time in your communities, learning from you and listening to your ideas about how we can work together to create an even stronger university.
Because I do believe we can be stronger. One of the things that attracted me to Nebraska was its excellent educational system, from K-12 through college, that provides people with opportunities to build a better future for themselves, their families and their communities. But we have more work to do, and Nebraska’s only public university needs to help lead the way. At a time when quality education has never been more important, I am convinced that our state – and the world – need the University of Nebraska to be a giant in higher education, doing more than ever to transform the lives of students and the people it serves.
I invite you to dream with me about what that means. About how we can be a giant in making sure college is within reach for all Nebraskans, in helping more students get across the finish line on time and with less debt, in working with policymakers and the private sector to create jobs, in putting our resources to work to help feed the world. I think we can be all these things and more, if we dream big and work hard.
I have experienced firsthand the transformative power of higher education. Growing up on a farm in rural Mississippi, with limited family resources, I never imagined I would have the opportunity to even go to college, much less become president of a leading university. But my military service helped pave the way and I was fortunate to receive excellent postsecondary education at both the community college and university levels. That education in turn opened the door for me to begin my career, first as a high school principal, then superintendent, state superintendent and, until a few weeks ago, as commissioner of higher education in Mississippi.
My fundamental commitment throughout my professional life has been to try to impact students’ lives in the way education changed my own life. Today, with two young children of my own, I am more sharply focused on that goal than ever.
My wife Susie and I, our son Will and daughter Caroline are excited to call Nebraska home. We are already in awe of this state, its caring and committed citizens, and its great university system, enriching the lives of people from Scottsbluff to Nebraska City, Valentine to McCook. I look forward to learning much more about Nebraska in the weeks and months ahead and to working with you to shape the next era for the University of Nebraska. I truly believe the best days for our university and our state are ahead of us. I can’t wait to get started.
President-Designate Bounds’ statement on Chancellor Harvey Perlman’s decision to step down
President-Designate Bounds’ statement on Chancellor Harvey Perlman’s decision to step down
Testimony to the Appropriations Committee, 2015-17 biennial budget request
Chairman Mello and members of the Appropriations Committee, thank you for the opportunity to be with you this afternoon. I am Dr. Jim Linder (L-I-N-D-E-R), interim president of the University of Nebraska, and I am pleased to join Regent Phares in speaking in support of the university’s budget request. I’d like to spend a few minutes reviewing our request, and then I will answer any questions you may have.
My interactions with the university are diverse and long-term. I graduated from UNMC; subsequently as a faculty member I taught both undergraduate and graduate students, provided clinical service and outreach, did research and served in administration. I’ve also been fortunate to see how our family’s personal philanthropic involvement benefits students and academic programs. This is our university, the university belonging to everyone in this room, and I am proud of what it does for Nebraska.
Regent Phares stated the highest priority of the Board and the University of Nebraska is affordable excellence. Affordable in that we want all qualified Nebraskans to have the opportunity to benefit from higher education. And Excellence in offering programs that will allow our students to become the next generation of leaders in Nebraska. Today I am asking you to support a budget that would allow the university to do three things to advance affordable, excellent education on behalf of the people of Nebraska.
One, invest in our core needs: salaries and benefits, utilities, IT, and facility operations and maintenance. That first item, employee compensation, is by far the largest component of our operating budget and is fundamental to recruiting and retaining talented faculty and staff who teach our students, perform research and deliver essential services. Unfortunately we are not making meaningful progress toward the Board’s goal of paying our employees in line with market averages, especially at UNL and UNMC. A 3 percent increase in our salary pool, which is consistent with what the faculty collective bargaining units at UNO and UNK have negotiated, would help us “keep up” with our peers, most of whom are planning similar increases for the coming year.
Two, make select strategic investments that would benefit our students and faculty. These include Collegebound Nebraska, our need-based tuition assistance program; initiatives to expand college-going among underrepresented students; and a salary “catch-up” effort, equivalent to 1 percent of our salary pool, to address some of the most significant competitive gaps.
And three, move forward on exciting initiatives that will grow Nebraska’s economy, meet workforce needs, attract talent to our state, and expand employment opportunities for our young people. This part of our request is captured in LB 154, so I will speak to it in greater detail a bit later. For the moment I will focus on the operational portion of our request.
We are fortunate in Nebraska to have enjoyed strong support for our state’s only public university. During the recent economic downturn, when many public universities experienced damaging budget cuts, causing students to bear higher tuition and greater debt, Nebraska was able to advance due in part to the stable base of state support provided by the state. We are incredibly grateful to policymakers — and members of this Committee in particular — for their long history of recognizing that the university is part of the fabric that makes our state strong.
Today the university is doing more than ever to serve the people of Nebraska and grow the state’s economy. Enrollment is at its highest point in more than two decades, and we are seeing impressive growth in areas critical to Nebraska’s workforce: agriculture, engineering, information technology, health care and business. Our students are increasingly diverse, and we have efforts to increase college-going among low-income, minority, first-generation and rural students. We seek for students to promptly complete their degrees with minimal debt, so they can enter the workforce. This has been aided by our use of new technologies that provide distance education to thousands of Nebraskans. The work is ongoing, but there are plenty of success stories. As one example, in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, more than 90 percent of students have their next step in place at the time of their graduation.
The research of our faculty is improving the quality of life for people in Nebraska and around the world. We are putting our talents and resources to work to address the significant global challenges of the day: hunger, poverty, cancer and disease, climate change, national security. In recent years we have launched new initiatives, engaging faculty on all four campuses and involving partners in the state and beyond, that focus on some of these challenges. These include the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, the National Strategic Research Institute and the Rural Futures Institute. Through these and other initiatives, the University of Nebraska has a seat at the table in some of the most important global conversations. Just a few weeks ago the Omaha World-Herald featured a team of UNO experts who are working with the Department of Defense on anti-terrorism efforts. The work of UNMC and Nebraska Medicine in responding to the Ebola crisis has been widely documented. Our faculties are leading the way in determining how to meet a global demand for food that will double by 2050. And I could go on.
Our research brings economic benefits. The most recent data from the Association of University Technology Managers show that the University of Nebraska is in the top 5 percent of institutions nationally in the number of startup companies created. And we are in the top 20 percent for inventions, patents, licenses and licensing revenue. All four of our campuses have, and are developing more, public-private partnerships that leverage the work of our faculty to create more businesses and jobs, attract talent to our state, and expand opportunities for young people. The Legislature has been a partner in some of these key efforts… the nursing and allied health expansion at Kearney, Nebraska Innovation Campus, and the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, which, even before it is finished, is becoming a talent magnet for Nebraska. More on some of these later, as we discuss LB 154.
That is the briefest snapshot of our momentum. The University of Nebraska is in a strong position today thanks to the hard work of many, the generosity of alumni and friends, and your support and partnership, based on our shared goals for education and economic competitiveness. What’s important is that we can do even more to serve Nebraskans, if the right investments are made.
I want to be clear. We understand that this Committee is balancing many important priorities. We are grateful for the support you have provided in your preliminary recommendation. But I would ask you to consider an investment in the University of Nebraska that meets our core needs and allows us to make real progress in areas that we are convinced will benefit our state.
A few quick comments about the Committee’s initial budget. First, you have recommended that any unexpended state appropriations at the end of the biennium not be re-appropriated. I would note that we spend our appropriations each year, except for funds encumbered for near-term recruitment or programs.
Second, I’m pleased the Committee has reaffirmed funding for the Veterinary Diagnostic Center, an important component of our Building a Healthier Nebraska partnership. The facility is expected to be completed in 2017. LB 660 would skip the 2015-16 payment and extend the financing until 2024. Our preference is to restore funding for 2015-16, but at a minimum, the future funding figure for the project currently included in LB 660 appears inaccurate and needs to be adjusted.
State support is the vital ingredient in meeting the core needs of the university. As you know, there are two main funding sources that support our general operations: state appropriations and tuition. These funds keep the University of Nebraska running. They pay for ongoing operation and maintenance of our facilities — important state assets where teaching and research take place. For example, we need funds to operate and maintain the new Health Science Education Complex on the UNK campus so we can open the facility alter this year. And the bulk of our operating budget, 80 percent, goes toward salaries and benefits. We are competing in a global market to attract and retain our employees – the people who teach our students, who conduct groundbreaking research, and perform outreach in every county of the state.
My view is that we should not ask Nebraska students and families to bear an undue share of the cost. For the past decade the University of Nebraska has implemented moderate and predictable tuition increases, including a tuition freeze for all Nebraska students in the current biennium that was made possible by your support. We are very proud of the results. Tuition at each of our campuses is well below the peer average; UNL’s tuition is the lowest in the Big Ten. Most of our students, on average, graduate with less debt than their peers. Our student loan default rates are well below the national averages. In part because of private philanthropy, more than half of undergraduates at the University of Nebraska receive financial aid, including 7,000 students who, because of means, qualify to pay no tuition through our Collegebound Nebraska program. Many of these are first generation college attendees.
Today it is more important than ever to expand access to higher education to even more students. Our economic competitiveness depends on it. In just a few years, 71 percent of all jobs in Nebraska will require postsecondary education. Many of the fastest-growing jobs are in the STEM and health care fields. The Pew Research Center has found that the earnings gap between bachelor’s degree recipient and a high school graduate has never been greater. And by almost every economic measure — income, employment rate, likelihood of poverty — the cost of not going to college is rising. The facts are clear. If we want to meet the workforce needs of the future, and keep our economy strong, we must ensure that a college education is within reach for all students who are qualified and want to attend. Maintaining low tuition rates compared to our peers and providing adequate financial aid are two fundamental ways to do that. Our plans for tuition will be a discussion with the Regents, once we know what our state appropriations will be. I can tell you that our commitment to moderate and predictable increases remains.
I have spent the past few minutes talking about opportunities for investment. Let me say a word about a topic that is equally important: cost control. We must be accountable with the resources you entrust to us, and I want to assure you we take this responsibility seriously. The University of Nebraska does much more today than when I was a student, even while receiving a smaller percentage of the state’s budget. We have managed to grow our research enterprise by winning grants and contracts. We have kept staffing and administrative spending to levels that are lower than our peer institutions. The number of university employees funded from tax and tuition dollars has remained relatively flat since 2000, despite significant growth in enrollment and research activity, and we have been successful in growing jobs using federal, private and other non-state funds. In fact, currently 42 percent of university employees, representing $326 million in wages, are funded from sources other than tax and tuition dollars — an impact that might not exist without the university’s ability to leverage non-tax dollars. And, since 2000 we have made $80 million in budget reallocations, which recur annually, and our efforts to find more savings are ongoing.
Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee, thank you for your attention today. I will close by saying I feel honored to be serving as Interim President at such an exciting time in the history of the University of Nebraska. Our success is rooted in the support of policymakers who have generously invested in affordable, excellent higher education. I thank you for that support, and ask you to continue that partnership as we work to build a bright future for Nebraska.
With that, I would be pleased to respond to your questions.
Testimony to the Appropriations Committee, LB 154 (economic competitiveness package)
Chairman Mello and members of the Appropriations Committee, I am Dr. Jim Linder (L-I-N-D-E-R), interim president of the University of Nebraska. Thank you for the opportunity to speak in support of a proposal that I am convinced would have a significant impact on Nebraska’s economy, our workforce, quality of life, and the education of our young people. I thank Speaker Hadley for sponsoring this important legislation, and this Committee for its support of two of the components — the health science expansion in Kearney and Nebraska Innovation Campus – in its preliminary budget recommendation. I’d like to spend a few minutes reviewing our full proposal for you, and then I would be pleased to answer your questions.
This economic competitiveness enhancement proposal comes at a time when Nebraska is uniquely positioned to secure a competitive advantage. We fared better than many other states during the economic downturn and today Nebraska and our communities have much to offer — low unemployment, high quality of life, a strong public education system, a vibrant startup community and abundant job opportunities. Omaha was recently named the best American city to be a technology worker. And a list of the top 10 U.S. cities to get a job in 2015 included not one but two Nebraska cities — with Lincoln in the top spot.
But, to borrow from the Omaha World-Herald’s editorial pages, we need to build on Nebraska’s economic strengths, not remain content with the status quo. To quote the newspaper, “Nebraska should look to its strengths and build on economic niches where it excels.” And Nebraska’s public university can — and should — play a leading role in these efforts.
This was the thinking behind our $20 million economic competitiveness proposal. The proposal would advance university initiatives that leverage the talents and resources of our four campuses for Nebraska’s economic benefit. These are initiatives that are already underway at the university, where good work is being done and where we have an opportunity to have an even stronger impact on Nebraska’s economy with the infusion of additional capital.
There is a strong business case for this investment. The potential for workforce development, recruitment of new talent to our state, job creation and expanded educational opportunities is substantial. And the state is positioned to see a significant return on its investment in these projects. Jerry Deichert, director of the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, recently completed an analysis that concluded the economic competitiveness package would create more than 1,100 jobs, generate $58 million in labor income, and have a $108 million impact on the state’s economy in fiscal year 2017. This represents a nearly 5-to-1 return on our requested $20 million state investment. Details of Jerry’s report are included in the binder of information we have provided to you.
I think these are the reasons why our proposal has attracted such strong support from a diverse range of constituents. Letters of support are included in your packets, so I will not recite them, but I would draw your attention to the fact that they represent many of our key stakeholders: students and faculty, the state’s leading business and agriculture groups, rural and urban representatives. We are gratified by this strong show of support from Nebraskans.
Let me touch on the opportunities that we are targeting for additional financial support.
First, the Health Science Education Complex in Kearney, scheduled for completion in July. This project, which will expand our capacity to educate nurses and allied health professionals, was part of our Building a Healthier Nebraska initiative, which this Committee generously supported. And you have again recognized the critical importance of taking steps to meet health needs in rural Nebraska, where shortages of health care workers are especially acute. We are grateful for your support. We are building a building. Now we need to staff it. Additional support will help us hire faculty and staff who will train rural Nebraska’s future health care professionals.
The need for expanded capacity at UNK is clear. Twenty-three counties in our state have no physician assistant and there are no physical therapists working in 13 counties. Consider also that about one-third of Nebraska’s physician assistants and physical therapists are between the ages of 46 and 65 – indicating that there will be plenty of job openings in the years ahead. And just last week Georgetown University issued a report that spelled out our challenge in no uncertain terms. According to the report, by 2020, the United States could be facing a shortage of 200,000 nursing professionals. We would be wise to act now to address this need.
Second, Nebraska Innovation Campus. The state provided an initial capital investment that we have been able to leverage with significant private-sector funding. Because of that, we are ahead of schedule in having infrastructure and the initial conference center and offices in place. A “maker space” that will foster creative activity in the community and business accelerator for start-up companies are underway. Installation of a LemnaTec plant phenotyping system has begun in the greenhouse innovation center and it will be one of only a handful in the world, capable of greatly advancing our research agenda in plant science. The Department of Food Science and Technology also is relocating there, which will provide exciting new opportunities for joint research activities with ConAgra Foods. And we just announced three new partners – Hastings HVAC, Echo Canyon Services and Quantified Ag – who will move to the campus later this year.
In a few months’ time, Innovation Campus will be bustling with faculty, students and business leaders, which we believe will only heighten interest. Having private companies nearby will expose our students to real-world business activities and create internship and job opportunities that will keep our graduates at home. Innovation Campus is only a few years old but we are more convinced than ever that this project can be a major economic player for Nebraska.
Third, the Peter Kiewit Institute. This is a keen focus of the Board of Regents and university leadership, because every indicator I’ve seen shows that the demand for more STEM-educated workers, both in Nebraska and nationally, is only going to increase. We regularly hear from leading companies in Nebraska that one of their greatest needs is for more engineers, computer scientists and IT workers. They are counting on the University of Nebraska to meet that need.
We have been very candid with ourselves about where PKI is succeeding and where we need to do more. We engaged external experts in a rigorous evaluation process that concluded PKI has yet to reach its full potential in serving Nebraska. The result of that evaluation was a bold new strategic growth plan, a collaborative effort between UNO and UNL that was unanimously endorsed by the Board of Regents last year. This integrated plan represents the most ambitious agenda for engineering and information technology in our history. Growing enrollment in the College of Information Science & Technology by 50 percent and by a third in the College of Engineering. A two- to three-fold increase in research activity. Fifty more faculty to educate more students, conduct more research and forge more partnerships with the private sector. Improved student outcomes and new, collaborative academic programs to meet their needs.
The plan is beginning to have an impact. We were pleased that enrollment in the College of Engineering grew 8.5 percent this year, and enrollment in the College of Information Science & Technology is up 13 percent – both well above overall university-wide growth rates. But to meet the goals of the plan, and the needs of the state, significant investments in talent and infrastructure will be required. In my view, the cost of not investing – in terms of unmet workforce needs, lost opportunities to attract talent and serve students, and a missed chance to be a global leader in an area that is widely recognized to be a foundation of economic growth – is one Nebraska cannot afford.
Next, the Rural Futures Institute. Nebraska is well-positioned to be a leader in developing strategies for enhancing economic opportunity and improving the quality of life in nonmetropolitan areas. Already the Rural Futures Institute has had an impact in more than 70 communities across Nebraska communities through its innovative rural serviceship program for students. The program is distinct from extension services in that it sends students around the state – from Kimball to Neligh, Valentine to Red Cloud – to work with community leaders on real projects that benefit the community. The institute is planning to hire faculty experts in key areas related to rural development, continue its successful grant program that funds collaborative research projects relevant to rural communities, and move forward on a new initiative that focuses on workforce development, entrepreneurship, talent recruitment and business growth in rural areas. State support would be a significant boost to these efforts.
Fifth, the National Strategic Research Institute. This is an initiative we launched in 2012 to create a partnership with the U.S. Strategic Command focused on research and development that can advance national security. It is one of only 13 such institutes across the country, a distinction we are very proud of. The NSRI is off to a successful start, with 33 initial research projects focusing on vaccine development, prevention of foodborne outbreaks, detection of nuclear weapons and other areas critical to the safety of our country. For example, one of our faculty members at UNMC leads a team that is working to develop a more effective vaccine for anthrax. His research has the potential to protect soldiers and save lives. Another faculty member, a UNL physicist, is exploring ways to better detect nuclear materials. The NSRI also has provided a vehicle for UNO to launch a leadership fellows program for the nation’s top civilian security specialists. And these are just some of the early success stories. There is significant growth potential for the research and educational activities being done at NSRI.
And finally, we are exploring a number of business engagement and workforce development opportunities across our campuses that can help drive economic growth in our communities. These include a new biomedical institute which will be jointly led by UNMC and UNO and will provide new opportunities for faculty to commercialize their biomedical technology discoveries. The institute has received enthusiastic support from the Board of Regents and represents a major opportunity to fill a gap in the market. We are not the only ones who think so. The Omaha World-Herald recently endorsed this project, calling biomedicine “the next niche” for Omaha and noting that this field offers major economic development opportunities for our state.
Also in the business and workforce category, we are exploring the potential for creating “maker spaces” in Omaha and Kearney that will be tied to local STEM education efforts, and for enhancement of the UNO-based Nebraska Business Development Center. NBDC has a strong record assisting Nebraska businesses, and we are planning to bring it into a new phase of growth, expanding access at its seven locations and initiating an incubation accelerator for new businesses. Finally, we hope to expand support services for veterans at the university, such as counseling, advising, career services, learning communities and financial aid.
Members of the Committee, we know we have put forward an ambitious package. We are very excited about the programs we are targeting for support and we think each can directly benefit Nebraskans and yield a strong return on the state’s investment. Nevertheless, we understand that you may not be able to fund the entire proposal. But should you decide to partner with us, I ask your consideration on two points. One, that any support you provide for our economic competitiveness initiatives come on top of, not within, your baseline investment in the university for our salaries and core operating needs.
And two, that if you decide to provide support, you provide a lump sum that gives the President and Board of Regents the discretion to allocate the funds to the projects that we decide are most pressing and promising. In choosing which programs to fund, the Board and President would look to the university’s Strategic Framework, which you heard about earlier today, to guide us in allocating resources to our highest priorities.
Thank you, and I’d be happy to take your questions.
Statement on Governor Ricketts’ budget recommendation
The university and the state have a long and successful history of working together to achieve shared goals for affordable education and economic competitiveness. The budget recommendation illustrates opportunities to continue that partnership going forward. We're excited about the initiatives that are in our budget request - university efforts in rural development, engineering and IT, health care and other areas that will attract talent, meet workforce needs and grow Nebraska's economy - and we hope policymakers agree. While the Governor's budget recommendation would not cover all of our proposed investments, it is a very positive starting point for discussion and we are grateful for his support. We share the Governor's goal to work together to grow Nebraska.
We are grateful for the state's investment in the university that allows us to serve the citizens. The University has a strong record of managing our budget in a cost effective and proactive way that has allowed us to advance important priorities while maintaining affordable access to excellent education - the Board of Regents' highest goal. A stable base of state support is fundamental to our ability to meet the expectations of Nebraskans. We are very fortunate in Nebraska that policymakers have long recognized the important role the university plays in the state's economy. We look forward to continuing to discuss our budget request with the Governor and members of the Legislature.
Statement from Interim University of Nebraska President James Linder, M.D., on Veterans Day
Nov. 11, 2014
Interim University of Nebraska President James Linder, M.D., issued the following statement today in honor of Veterans Day:
“On behalf of the University of Nebraska, I want to thank all the men and women who have served or are currently serving our country, as well as their family members. The university is proud to support veterans and military students and their families by making sure we provide high-quality, flexible academic programs and services that meet their unique needs. We are honored that our campuses are recognized for what they do to help military students succeed in the classroom and beyond, and we look forward to continuing to serve those who have served us.”
Linder noted that more than 50,000 veterans in Nebraska – more than one-third of the state’s total veteran population – have either earned an associate’s degree or completed some college but not earned a degree. Another 40,000 of Nebraska’s veterans have only high school credentials. Linder said that expanding access to education for veterans and enhancing services for military learners so that they can earn their degrees, meet the state’s workforce needs and build better lives for themselves and their families is an important priority for the university.
The university currently provides a number of services to support military learners, including military counselors and advisors on all four campuses, scholarships for military students and their families, flexible deployment policies, veteran student organizations, and flexible online degree programs that include opportunities for students to earn academic credit for military service. The University of Nebraska at Omaha’s online Bachelor of General Studies degree and University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s online Master of Business Administration program both have been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as among the best online programs in the country for veterans.
On Monday, UNO also was named the nation’s No. 1 four-year institution for veterans by the Military Times.
Oct. 27, 2014: Campaign for Nebraska Update
October 27, 2014
James Linder, M.D.
Sept. 16, 2014 – Testimony to Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education, 2015-17 biennial budget request
Sept. 16, 2014
Chairwoman Adam and members of the Commission, I am Dr. Jim Linder, interim president of the University of Nebraska. Thank you for the opportunity to present the University’s 2015-2017 biennial budget request, which has been approved by the Board of Regents. I will spend a few minutes outlining our request, and then I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.
A few days ago I was asked during an interview, if I could change one thing about higher education, what would it be? I thought for a moment and answered, “awareness.” I meant it in a broad sense…awareness of the role of higher education, both in the individual lives of our students, and also in a larger societal context. During a university education students should gain skills to support their career, learn how to learn through critical thinking, and become a person who can contribute to society. And that is the message I hope to leave with you today – that higher education, and the University of Nebraska specifically, plays a vital role in improving the lives of our citizens, and in ensuring the long-term economic vitality of our state through those we educate. This is the guiding principle of our budget request.
One thing that has struck me in my short time as Interim President is how fortunate we are in Nebraska to have a strong working relationship between the University and the State – one that is focused on shared priorities and the best interests of our citizens. And when I talk to Nebraskans, they understand the important role of the University.
Other states are not so lucky. Particularly in the recent economic downturn, many of our peers experienced budget cuts that damaged their quality and reduced access. Meanwhile, in Nebraska, while we too reallocate funds, we have been able to not just maintain the status quo, but advance. Policymakers have continued to show strong support for affordable, quality higher education in the state and have made important investments in initiatives like Nebraska Innovation Campus, the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, a health science complex in Kearney and, for the current biennium, an “affordability compact” that allowed for a two-year tuition freeze for all Nebraska students.
We are very grateful for this support. It has helped Nebraska maintain a competitive advantage and I believe the economic payoff – in terms of job creation, workforce development and expanded access for students who want to enjoy the benefits of a college degree – will be significant. Those working at the University are proud of what we contribute, but I constantly remind my colleagues that pride should not lead to hubris. It is our job to support education, research and service to our citizens. What we do must include supporting P-16 goals, STEM education and the mutual goals we share with the state colleges, community colleges and others.
Today, as the nationwide economy is improving, other states are investing in major initiatives tying higher education to economic competitiveness. Wisconsin has proposed a $95 million “talent development” initiative that includes expanded opportunities for entrepreneurship, internships and student and faculty growth. Minnesota is considering a $36 million “discovery, research and innovation” effort. Missouri has put forth a $51 million plan to expand capacity for STEM education and research. Those are just a few examples.
What does this mean for Nebraska? If we want to be competitive edge, we need to keep moving forward.
The facts are clear. The share of working-age Nebraskans who hold at least a two-year degree is slightly above the national average – but with our state ranked seventh in the nation in demand for workers with postsecondary education, we need to do more to make sure college is within reach for all who are qualified and want to attend, and that students who enroll on our campuses are prepared for success.
We have made it a high priority to align our academic programs with the needs of Nebraska companies – but with workforce analyses showing high demand for more nurses, engineers, IT workers, physician assistants and physical therapists, to name a few, we will need to produce more graduates who can fill the jobs of the future. I know workforce development is one of the Commission’s Areas of Emphasis for the upcoming biennium and I strongly agree that growth of high-skill, high-paying jobs in Nebraska should be at the top of our agenda.
We are making significant progress in linking faculty with entrepreneurial experts who can help them commercialize their innovations – the University of Nebraska recently ranked 20th in the nation in licensing revenue from university-developed inventions. Hudl, a startup company from Lincoln, ranks among the highest growing companies on he Inc 500 list. We have great opportunities to do more, so that more Nebraskans can benefit from our faculty’s work in medicine, agriculture, engineering and other areas.
This was our thinking as we developed our biennial budget request. I hope you will keep the same facts in mind as you consider our request.
The key component of our request is a $20 million economic competitiveness package which seeks to advance University initiatives that leverage the talents and resources of our four campuses for the benefit of Nebraskans. Let me briefly touch on the initiatives we are targeting for additional investment:
First, Nebraska Innovation Campus. The state provided an initial generous investment that we have been able to leverage with significant private-sector funding. Because of that, a conference center, “maker space” for innovators, business accelerator for start-up companies, and highly specialized greenhouse center are now taking shape at Innovation Campus. The UNL Department of Food Science and Technology also is relocating there, which will provide exciting new opportunities for joint research activities with ConAgra and other partners. The companies at Innovation Campus will expose our students to real-world experiences, and create job opportunities that keep our graduates at home. Because thousands of jobs can be created at successful university technology parks, the competition is intense. Additional state and private investments are essential for Innovation Campus to have its optimal economic impact. Of our $20 million request to the state, we estimate we would invest about $4 million in moving Innovation Campus forward.
Third, the Health Science Education Complex in Kearney, which broke ground earlier this year. You may remember that the complex was one component of our Building a Healthier Nebraska initiative, which the state generously supported. We now must staff the building with faculty and staff and we would use about $2 million in state support to do that. These talented employees will expand UNMC nursing and allied health programs at the UNK campus and put us in a better position to meet health needs in rural Nebraska, where shortages of health care workers are especially acute. For example, 23 counties in our state have no physician assistant and there are no physical therapists working in 13 counties. Consider also that about one-third of Nebraska’s physician assistants and physical therapists are between the ages of 46 and 65 – indicating that there will be plenty of job openings in the years ahead.
Next, the National Strategic Research Institute. This is an initiative we launched in 2012 to create a partnership with the U.S. Strategic Command focused on research and development that can advance national security. The NSRI is off to a very successful start, with initial research projects focusing on vaccine development, prevention of foodborne outbreaks, detection of nuclear weapons and other areas critical to the safety of our country. The contract research done at NSRI can grow substantially in coming years, and could have an economic impact on Nebraska of more than $200 million. We estimate we would invest about $1.5 million of our request in the NSRI.
Fifth, the Rural Futures Institute. Nebraska is well-positioned to be a leader in developing strategies for enhancing the economy and quality of life in nonmetropolitan areas, and we will do that through the RFI and the Community Vitality Initiative. The institute is planning to hire faculty experts in key areas related to rural development, continue its successful grant program that funds collaborative research projects relevant to rural communities, and move forward on a new initiative that focuses on workforce development, entrepreneurship, talent recruitment and business growth in rural areas. An investment of about $1.5 million in state support would be a significant boost to these efforts.
And finally, we are exploring a number of business engagement and workforce development opportunities across our campuses that can help drive economic growth in our communities. Collectively we seek about $6.5 million in state support for these opportunities. For example, we’re looking at creating “maker spaces” in Omaha and Kearney that will be tied to local STEM education efforts. We’re also exploring opportunities to more effectively link our research activities with industry, a priority that we share with the Commission.
Beyond the economic competitiveness package, our request also includes support for Collegebound Nebraska, our financial aid program that promises full tuition assistance to qualifying Nebraska students, and a “college pipeline” initiative that will help more underrepresented students – including minority, first-generation and rural students – access and succeed in college. I know that access is a high priority for the Commission and I fully agree that ensuring that higher education remains open to all Nebraskans is our most fundamental responsibility. Our College Pipeline project also ties directly to the Commission’s emphasis on improving retention and graduation rates in our state. It includes expanded outreach to prospective students; growth in our online high school, particularly among underrepresented students; and expansion of our summer bridge programs that help incoming students become familiar with the college environment. These efforts, together with other student-focused strategies our campuses have put in place, will put more students in a position to stay in school and earn their degree. You rightfully expect us to demonstrate continued improvement in this area; we share that goal and monitor our progress very rigorously.
Regarding salaries: The University of Nebraska – like many business in our state – competes on a global stage for talent. We have incredibly talented faculty and staff on our campuses who are responsible for educating our students, conducting research, and performing outreach in every Nebraska county. But if we do not provide competitive compensation, we risk losing key employees we are handicapped in being unable to attract new talent. Our faculty and staff salaries currently lag behind their peers. We hope to make some targeted investments in cases where salaries of key skillsets are particularly far behind the market average.
I’ve spent the past few minutes talking about opportunities for investment. Let me say a word about a topic that is equally important: cost control. I want to assure you that it is a very high priority for the University of Nebraska to be accountable to the policymakers and Nebraskans who invest their resources in us. We have worked hard at cost effectiveness and will continue to do so. We have managed to grow enrollment and research activity without adding employees supported by tax and tuition dollars. We have kept administrative spending at levels that are lower than our peer institutions. We have made $80 million in budget reallocations since 2000 in order to maintain investments in our priorities while also keeping tuition affordable. These cuts haven’t always been easy, but we are proud of the results: Tuition rates that are well below our peers, including the lowest tuition and lowest debt levels in the entire Big Ten; and academic quality that is widely recognized on a national scale. However, when it comes to cost savings, there are always more opportunities. We currently have task forces working on IT, energy utilization, financial transactions, health services, human resources and other areas to identify additional opportunities. On-line learning is cost-effective, and demanded by students, so we are expanding our use of online learning tools, and studying how our facilities must change to meet the new learning environment. Efficiency will continue to be a high priority for the Board of Regents, the chancellors and myself.
Let me conclude by saying that I feel very fortunate to be Interim President at a time when such great things are happening at the University of Nebraska. Our success is thanks in no small part to the support of policymakers who have generously invested in affordable, excellent higher education. I thank you for that support. Now I ask you to partner with us again as we seek to build on our momentum.
Thank you, and with that, I’d be pleased to respond to your questions.
Sept. 2, 2014 – Message to all students
Sept. 2, 2014
Dear University of Nebraska student:
As interim president of the University of Nebraska, I am happy to welcome you to campus. Some of you are returning, some come as transfer students, and others are beginning your university experience. Collectively you represent every Nebraska county, all 50 U.S. states and well over 100 countries around the world. Each year the University of Nebraska educates more than 50,000 students and each of you faces different opportunities and challenges – but I am confident that for all of you it will be an exciting year.
I thought back to my freshman year and asked myself: "If I could talk with the 1972 version of myself, what would I say?" So here is two minutes of advice from the 2014 Jim Linder to the 1972 Jim Linder, shared while sitting in the student union. You are eavesdropping.
"First, no matter how smart you are now, you will be wiser in five years. This has been consistently true for 40 years. Every five years I look back and realize I did not know as much as I thought. So be humble in what you think you know. Wisdom grows from experiences, and those only come with time.
"Second, because experience is the best teacher, say yes to different opportunities. Take part in that study-abroad program. Accept that internship in a different state. Take that course outside your academic major. Get to know people outside your circle of friends. There is a big world outside the Midwest, filled with incredible people, and college offers you a unique opportunity to experience it.
"Next -- and this one is important – develop abilities that justify someone paying you money. It sounds simplistic, but if you want your employer to give you a dollar, you must add value to their business in excess of a dollar. The abilities you develop can match your interests -- a technical skill (coding, healthcare, engineering); communication skill (teaching, journalism, law), creative skill (design, research, arts) or something else. Maybe, Jim, you should think about medicine.
"Fourth, while it's important to earn a living, learning how to live your life is the most valuable lesson from college. Your time at the University should help you understand people and how the world works. And when you understand, compassion follows. If people are compassionate, many of the seven deadly sins are avoided.
"Finally, the current generation will look to you, the next generation, to lead change that improves the world. Don't be afraid to lead and create, even if that effort carries the risk of failure. The fear of being embarrassed by failure often is the greatest barrier to success.”
So, that would be my advice to me. I might also mention buying stock in a computer company named after a fruit, or share a tip about an Omaha-based investor.
I hope your eavesdropping stimulates thoughts on a life built on great experiences at the University of Nebraska. Chancellors Perlman, Christensen, Kristensen and Gold, and I are honored to have you as students and as future alumni.
James Linder, M.D.
May 5, 2014 – Message to all employees
May 5, 2014
I am pleased to write to you on my first day as interim president of the University of Nebraska. Over the last month I worked closely with President Milliken, learning more about the great things happening on each of the campuses and the many opportunities that lie ahead for us. My respect for President Milliken, which was already high, has only grown as I learned more about the complexities of leading a multi-campus university. He deserves our sincere thanks and we wish him well as he begins his new job in New York.
Some colleagues have asked why I would take on the task of leading the university during this time of transition. The answer is simple. As a member of the faculty for more than 30 years, my institutional loyalty runs deep. Like most Nebraskans, I take great pride in the many contributions the University of Nebraska makes to the state. I know you share that pride, since it is your work – educating our students, conducting important research, and performing outreach activities in each Nebraska county – that advances the university’s fundamental mission to serve the people of the state. Our university focuses the energies and ideas of 13,000 talented faculty and staff to change Nebraska and the world, and together we are making great progress. I am grateful and excited for the opportunity to work with you in the months ahead.
The Board of Regents, in collaboration with a leading executive search firm and two search committees whose members represent a wide range of university constituencies, has begun the task of selecting the next permanent president. Much work is ahead, but I have full confidence that they will identify the right person to build on our impressive momentum. In the meantime, our commitment to doing work that serves Nebraskans and others will remain.
Thank you for all you do for the University of Nebraska.
James Linder, M.D.
Aug. 11, 2014 - Message to all employees
Aug. 11, 2014
Dear University of Nebraska Colleagues,
I have now had the honor of serving as interim president of this great institution for 100 days. There is a tradition, often linked to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in which individuals in a leadership position use their 100th day of service to reflect upon their early accomplishments.
I’m adopting this tradition – with a twist. These are not my personal achievements, but those of many from throughout the University. I also want to share with you what I have learned about the University from this unique vantage point, which is quite different than my lens as a faculty member. And, I want to lay out some of what I hope we can accomplish together during the next 100 days and beyond. I apologize in advance for the length of this letter, which violates (in a big way) my usual “one-page” rule for correspondence. I hope you agree the content justifies the length. Nothing written here is confidential, so please feel free to share these thoughts with your friends and family.
The breadth of activities at the University of Nebraska is substantial. I regularly read the news coming from each campus and am amazed by your accomplishments, contributions and engagement. Examples include the formation of a new integrated clinical enterprise at UNMC, the rapid growth of programming at the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center at UNO, the excitement about Nebraska Innovation Campus, which celebrates its grand opening this week at UNL, and the newly opened, state-of-the-art Wellness Center at UNK – to say nothing of the work you do daily to provide our students with a high-quality education that prepares them for success, conduct research relevant to Nebraskans and people around the world, and perform outreach in every county in the state. This snapshot, however brief, reflects your commitment to the University of Nebraska’s fundamental responsibility to change lives, as well as the effective leadership of the Chancellors and Deans. I encourage you to follow University developments at www.nebraska.edu or @U_Nebraska on Twitter. Knowing what your peers are doing can create interesting opportunities for collaboration.
As a longtime UNMC faculty member, my understanding of Central Administration (UNCA, located in Varner Hall) was limited. Working with the 40 or so individuals based at UNCA has been a pleasure. They usually contribute in the background, since most of the “action” (education, research and service) is on your campuses or at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis. During my initial months as interim president, I’ve come to understand that a university system office fills three major roles: 1) interacting with oversight bodies, including the Board of Regents, Nebraska policymakers and the federal government; 2) securing financial resources for the University, largely through state appropriations and in partnership with the University of Nebraska Foundation; and 3) providing a framework for a multi-campus system to collaborate. I’ll discuss each of these and their impact on the University.
The elected regents and student regents supervise the operation of the University and the direction of expenditures. They care deeply about the University and are committed to the success of each campus. Nebraska is fortunate to have its only public university organized as a single system to serve its citizens. There are unique strengths at UNO, UNK, UNL and UNMC, and in NCTA, and each plays a vital role for the people of our state. Our counterparts in states with multiple uncoordinated public institutions are forced to expend great effort lobbying their state governments and competing against their higher education counterparts. But we have the opportunity to speak in a single voice to the Nebraska Governor and Legislature, which we believe strengthens our message and is a key reason why Nebraska has a strong history of supporting public higher education.
While our policymakers must balance many important priorities, they recognize the contributions the University makes in educating the next generation of Nebraskans. I have met with many Senators and to a person they understand the important role the University of Nebraska plays and appreciate the good work being done here. We are indeed fortunate, and should humbly accept our role and continue our efforts to retain that respect. I should also mention that the University of Nebraska works closely with the community and state colleges in Nebraska. We have recently put new procedures in place to optimize transfer of credits when possible and to build an integrated learning experience for students who chose that path. In addition, we manage two major automated systems that also support the state college system’s finance and payroll (SAP) system as well as their student information system (NeSIS) and in concert with the State we operate a Statewide network called Network Nebraska.
On the federal side, many of the programs we have adopted, such as Collegebound Nebraska, the University of Nebraska High School, our P-16 programs and efforts to assure the safety of students, are in line with or ahead of some of the priorities that have been articulated nationally. There is particular interest across the country in doing more to ensure that all students – no matter their socioeconomic status – have access to higher education, and in this area I think the University of Nebraska is ahead of the game. Our tuition rates are typically 25 percent or more lower than those of our peer institutions, which results in lower student debt burdens.
The second topic – our financial resources – is important to understand. The budget defines what the University can do; it’s no different than how you manage your household. You may hear that the budget of the University is $2.4 billion. Yes, that is “billion” with a B. But the majority of those funds – about two-thirds – come to us with designations and restrictions, including private gifts, financial aid, research contracts, and self-supporting operations such as housing and UNL athletics. These monies flow through the University accounting system with little latitude on how they can be spent. The remaining funds – state appropriations and tuition revenue – constitute the FY2015 $864 million “state-aided” budget that supports key instructional activities, research, outreach and general operations of the University. Investment in our employees is our single biggest expenditure, with salaries and benefits making up more than 80 percent of the state-aided budget.
Even though we are only a month into the current fiscal year, we are already planning for the two-year budget cycle that will begin next year. In July we developed biennial budget request guidelines for FY2016 and FY2017 that were unanimously approved by the Board of Regents. Subsequent editorial coverage in the media was positive, as were my initial meetings with policymakers. But regental approval is just the first step in a long process. Next the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education will review our request, which in turn will be sent to the Governor and Legislature for consideration. No funding is guaranteed until the Legislature appropriates funds and the Governor acts on the budget bills in May 2015. Then the University President will present the FY2016 annual operating budget to the regents, which will include recommendations on tuition, salaries and other priorities. Because of term limits, we will have many new leaders in state government and in the coming months we will be communicating with them and other citizens around the state about the importance of supporting the University. Remember, all of you can be advocates.
Our biennial budget request includes modest increases for healthcare and operations, strategic investments in high-priority academic areas, funds to address salary shortfalls of some faculty and staff, and support for multi-campus initiatives that can advance the University’s work in growing Nebraska’s economy. We believe – and we hope policymakers agree – that the University plays a leading role in economic development, so we have put forward an economic competitiveness initiative that would help build Nebraska’s economy, creating opportunities for both our graduates and the state. We hope to make a strong case that the University is well-positioned to do even more to meet workforce needs through education, critical research and private-sector partnerships if the right investments are made. We are very grateful for the support the state has provided in recent years for University projects and we look forward to discussing our request with policymakers in more detail in the months ahead.
I won’t talk about revenue without also talking about spending – and specifically the steps we are taking to demonstrate accountability to Nebraskans who entrust us with their resources. We have begun looking at potential cost saving opportunities in areas that include information technology, business transactions, health services and human resources. By managing costs we can undertake new programs that benefit the University and the state. And no cost savings is too small. I have invited my colleagues in Varner Hall – and I invite you now – to send me suggestions, anonymously or otherwise, on how the University can save money, operate more efficiently or better accomplish our education, research and service missions. You are welcome to submit your suggestions using the submission form. I review each suggestion personally and would be pleased to hear your ideas.
Speaking of costs, some facts you should know:
• After inflation, spending per FTE student has decreased over the last 15 years. State appropriation and tuition per FTE student was $19,200 in 2014 versus $19,600 in 2000 on an inflation-adjusted basis.
• We’re delivering a great value. Education and related spending per completed degree (2011) at UNL is $56,374 compared to a peer average of $66,462 and a national average of $63,739.
• Administrative spending per student at all four campuses is lower than that at peer institutions.
• There has been a 12 percent decline in state-aided employee FTEs per student from 2000 to 2014. In that same time period, the overall number of state-aided employee FTEs has remained flat at around 7,800, even as enrollment has grown from 45,000 to 50,000 and our research enterprise has expanded significantly.
• There are more than 13,600 employees at NU, of whom 5,800 are supported by grants, contracts or other non-state aided funds. These employees greatly enrich the University without cost to the Nebraska taxpayer.
My message is that, taken together, these facts illustrate that the University has been responsible in its use of public resources, being able to educate more students, grow research activities and expand its outreach without pricing out the Nebraska families we exist to serve. I believe the runaway education costs reported in many media outlets are not evident in Nebraska.
Philanthropy has been an enormous driver of the growth of the University during the past decade. The “Campaign for Nebraska” will conclude in December, having raised nearly $1.8 billion – 50 percent more than our original goal. Generous donors have thus far contributed $260 million for student scholarships, $87 million for faculty support, $566 million for academic programs, $55 million for research, $624 million for capital projects and another $150 million in multi-purpose gifts. Without this support, the University would be a shadow of what it is today. The University of Nebraska Foundation, volunteer campaign leaders and all of the donors who have given during the Campaign have our deep gratitude. I am now working with the Foundation on planning for initiatives that will begin in 2015 to carry on the momentum we have built. These will include alumni outreach, enhanced academic program support and expansion of scholarships to maintain affordability. Nebraskans understand the good work that comes from the dollars that they donate to the University – work that likely would not be possible without philanthropic support.
The third topic to address is collaboration between campuses and faculty across the University of Nebraska. The short summary is, “The more we work together, the more we can accomplish.” For years institutes and centers on the campuses have pooled the talents of faculty to conduct research and deliver education. But, thanks to your good work, the support of University leadership, and in some cases the contributions of generous and visionary donors, in recent years we have been able to take that model to the next level. We have launched broad and deep University-wide institutes – the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute, Buffett Early Childhood Institute, Rural Futures Institute, Peter Kiewit Institute and the National Strategic Research Institute – each rooted in University strengths and priorities, and each with a mission to link faculty and resources across our campuses to accomplish goals that could not be met by a single department, college or campus alone. Unexpected discoveries can occur when you partner with colleagues from unrelated disciplines. These institutes, each led by incredibly talented and recognized leaders, have the potential to attract talent to our state, generate significant research support, elevate the University’s national and international reputation and – most importantly – deliver results that change lives in Nebraska and around the world. I encourage you to become affiliated with an institute if your academic activities can support its mission.
A substantial opportunity for faculty collaboration is the University of Nebraska Online Worldwide. The University of Nebraska currently offers more than 100 online degrees, certificates and endorsements. Expanding distance education opportunities is essential to our goals of increasing access, meeting student needs, and producing a highly skilled workforce for the state. We are seeing significant growth in enrollment in online courses among both undergraduate and graduate students, and there is demand from students who attend our physical campuses and those who are distant from NU. Our first MOOC, a health literacy course developed at UNMC, debuts this fall and already has 4,500 students signed up.
To be blunt, the University must have an aggressive online education strategy – one focused on expanding access while maintaining our high quality – or we risk becoming irrelevant. There will be great opportunities for faculty who are willing and able to develop coursework for the new learning environment. Your peers, faculty who have already had experience in these courses, can be great advisors as you consider developing online content.
I could go on for quite a while detailing the important and impressive work that you’re doing now and the opportunities that are emerging at the University. You may be interested to read “A Decade of Distinction: State of the University 2014,” which highlights accomplishments of the past decade and lays out some themes for the future. Suffice it to say here that because of you, we have built tremendous momentum and we have potential to achieve even more.
The next 100 days will take us almost to Thanksgiving. Between now and then, I challenge all of us to work together to take advantage of the opportunities we have to change the lives of people in Nebraska and around the world. Thank you for all you do for this great university.
Presidential Search Committee to Meet
August 6, 2014
The Presidential Search Screening and Selection Committee will meet on Wednesday, August 13, in the board room of the University of Nebraska Foundation office located at 2285 S. 67th St., Suite 200, in Omaha. The committee meeting will begin at 11:45 a.m.
Statement on the passing of Union Pacific Chairman Jim Young, Feb. 15, 2014
I don't know that I've met anyone I admired more than Jim Young. He had a great story--growing up in South Omaha, attending UNO with the support of his wife Shirley, and succeeding through hard work and determination. And he did it all with unmatched integrity. We are extremely proud to call him an alumnus of the University of Nebraska. The University, Omaha and Nebraska have lost a good friend, an exceptional leader and a great man.
Statement on the call to boycott Israeli universities, Jan. 2, 2014
Jan. 2, 2014
The following is a statement issued by the University of Nebraska, representing the position of University President James B. Milliken and the Chancellors of the University of Nebraska campuses, rejecting the call for a boycott of Israeli universities. The American Studies Association has voted to boycott higher education institutions in Israel to protest the country’s treatment of Palestinians. Numerous U.S. universities and higher education organizations – including the Association of Public and Land-grant Institutions, the American Council on Education and the American Association of University Professors – have opposed the boycott.
The University of Nebraska’s statement is as follows:
“The leadership of the University of Nebraska rejects the call to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education. We support the unfettered pursuit of knowledge, the open exchange of ideas, and the robust engagement of faculty and students among institutions around the world.
“We believe the call to boycott Israeli higher education institutions is misguided, and if successful would hinder the open pursuit of knowledge and exchange of ideas and threaten the very institutions that stand for these principles.
“U.S. universities and scholarly associations have long encouraged and supported the very academic freedom universities in Israel offer. We urge our colleagues to adopt policies that encourage dialogue rather than those that threaten the institutions and communities that are founded on free and open inquiry and discourse.”
Rural Futures Conference Opening Remarks
November 4, 2013
Good morning, and welcome to the University of Nebraska’s second annual Rural Futures Conference. Special greetings to those of you joining us for the first time. I am especially pleased that tomorrow we will be joined by Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, who is delivering the Heuermann Lecture on his vision for rural America and growing the rural economy. Secretary Vilsack will be here in his capacity as chair of the White House’s National Rural Council and we’ll be delighted to have him in Nebraska. I think the president’s creation of the Rural Council indicates that rural issues are regarded at the very highest levels as critical to the nation’s health.
I want to say a word about the history of the university’s Rural Futures Institute, because I’ve been a supporter and champion of this initiative since Day 1 and I have a deep personal interest in the work that will take place here. The inspiration, of course, dates back to 1862 and the land-grant movement in this country. Nebraska, like Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan and many other states represented at this conference, was at the forefront of this movement and is still committed to it today. The Morrill Act ushered in a remarkable period of advancement in this country that we are reaping the benefits of in the 21st century: opening the doors of higher education to the sons and daughters of farmers and mill workers, creating a platform for research to provide economic opportunity and advance a new nation, and connecting through extensions and other means the intellectual capital of great universities with people in the field, the factory and our communities.
There have been many initiatives in Nebraska and elsewhere to further this important work, but I know that many of us felt we were not realizing the full potential of what could be achieved by leveraging our resources, intellectual capacity and energy. The forerunner for this effort was the Nebraska Rural Initiative, launched in the late 1990s by the University. With the wise guidance of Sam Cordes and others, we assessed what was positive with that initiative and others, but more importantly what could be achieved with the right recipe. The germ of an idea for RFI was hatched. With the addition of Ronnie Green, we had a partner who shared the vision and commitment and brought new energy and ambition to our dream.
A year and a half ago, when we hosted the first Rural Futures Conference, the idea began to catch fire. The Rural Futures Institute hadn’t been officially launched yet. We didn’t have an organization or permanent leadership in place. We had begun laying the groundwork by surveying faculty and other key stakeholders, but our thinking about the mission of the institute was still in its nascent stages. We are much indebted to Mark Gustafson for his early leadership as interim director of the Rural Futures Institute.
Last year’s conference – in which a number of you were active participants – provided an opportunity for us to test our theory that an institute dedicated to rural life and development was something we should invest in. We sensed that an institute like this could make a major difference in the lives of rural residents in Nebraska and globally, and we felt that the University of Nebraska – with faculty and resources across four campuses, partners around the state, and a rich history of serving Nebraska’s communities – had an opportunity to take a leadership role. We knew we were talking about something big that involved significant risk… but as I said then, and as I continue to believe, that’s what makes this worth doing.
But we wanted to confirm with external partners that this was a path we should go down. And you helped us do just that. Not only with interest in our first conference that exceeded our capacity, but with your deep engagement, energy and support for what we had set out to do. Two broad concepts came out of that conference that have greatly helped our thinking: First, it became clear that if we were going to create a Rural Futures Institute, it needed to be truly trans-disciplinary. This is not about agriculture or business or health or tourism alone. It involves all of those disciplines and many others – law, economics, transportation, medicine and public health, communication – all the areas relevant to rural people and rural communities. The University of Nebraska, with faculty with expertise in each of these areas, is well-positioned to address such a range of issues.
Secondly, the conference validated the idea that the research mission of the institute needed to be broad-based, including the biological sciences, social sciences, the business world, the legal world and others. But to realize the vision many of you helped nurture, we cannot do this alone. We knew we needed to engage partners in the state, regionally and beyond in order to be successful.
I am pleased to be able to say that today, in addition to continuing to talk about those things, we’re doing them. We have made real progress since the last time we convened this conference. First, we’ve hired a founding executive director of the Rural Futures Institute, Chuck Schroeder, a son of the soil from a ranching community with deep experience with and passion for rural issues. Chuck doesn’t officially begin until Dec. 1 but he is already engaged in the work of the institute and he is with us this week. I believe we’ve found exactly the right person to lead the institute through its early phases and I could not be more pleased to have attracted Chuck back to Nebraska. Chuck will speak tomorrow about his vision for the institute and it will be an excellent opportunity for all of us to hear from him directly.
Additionally, following a call for proposals, we have awarded $750,000 in competitive grants for teaching, research and outreach projects focused on issues of importance to the Rural Futures Institute.
In evaluating the many proposals we received, we kept in mind a few key criteria: The projects had to involve faculty from one or more University of Nebraska campus, and they had to involve partnerships outside the university. The first round of projects is underway and they are addressing issues as diverse as ecotourism, juvenile re-entry into rural communities, rural public health, rural entrepreneurship, community marketing and others. All four University of Nebraska campuses are represented among the grant recipients, as are partners in the business sector, government and other land-grant institutions. We’ll initiate the second round of grants at this conference and I’m excited to see what new projects come out of that.
Much of the heavy lifting for the Rural Futures Institute is in front of us. But when I reflect on where we were just a short time ago, I am extremely pleased with the steps we’ve taken and the momentum and energy that I see around this initiative. That is a testament to the hard work and commitment of colleagues at the University of Nebraska and other universities represented here today, community leaders around the state and across the region and beyond who share our vision for a Rural Futures Institute that will help create, grow, and sustain a vibrant, competitive future for rural people and communities everywhere. I want to thank you for your collaboration thus far – and urge you to keep thinking boldly and creatively going forward.
Again, welcome to the Rural Futures Conference. I think we have a great couple of days ahead of us, and I’m excited to see what new ideas emerge.