President’s Monthly Op-Ed: Dream with me about a stronger University of Nebraska
Dream with me about a stronger University of Nebraska
July 13, 2015
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.
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.
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.
More Articles ...
- Statement on Governor Ricketts’ budget recommendation
- Statement from Interim University of Nebraska President James Linder, M.D., on Veterans Day
- Oct. 27, 2014: Campaign for Nebraska Update
- Sept. 16, 2014 – Testimony to Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education, 2015-17 biennial budget request