In considering budget priorities, Nebraska can seize opportunity to lead

March 16, 2018

By Robert Schafer

Rob Schafer 

The writer, of Beatrice, represents District 5 and serves as Chairman of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.

Recently I got to hear a speech from Husker Volleyball Coach John Cook.

Last season, as Coach Cook told it, players came up with a motto that ended up guiding them all the way to a national championship:

Why not us?

That’s stuck with me. The way I see it, all Nebraskans should be asking ourselves that question when it comes to the potential of our state and the University of Nebraska. And it’s a question I hope the Legislature is considering as they deliberate the budget developed under the leadership of Chairman John Stinner and the Appropriations Committee, who I commend for making the University and our 53,000 students a priority.

Who’s going to lead the fight against cancer so that every person diagnosed with this awful disease has hope for a full life?

Who’s going to figure out how to increase yields so that the 9.6 billion people who will inhabit our planet by 2050 won’t go hungry?

Who’s the Department of Defense going to ask for help in defeating ISIS and making sure more of our men and women in uniform come home safely?

Who’s going to be the model for giving every young person the opportunity to change their life through higher education, no matter their background?

Why not us?

Nebraska will never have the highest population or the most resources. What we do have is a unity of purpose that makes our state as special as any other place.

For a century and a half, citizens in government, education, business and the community have joined together in pursuit of shared goals for economic growth and quality of life. Our tradition of partnership has produced successes like the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, which is transforming cancer care for Nebraskans like the young mother from Elkhorn who said recently that support for the University “is more than just a line in a budget… Ask my three little boys.”

As I think about the future, I’m convinced the opportunities for us to work alongside the Governor, Legislature and partners in agriculture and business to strengthen our state have never been greater. We must account for current fiscal realities while not taking our eyes off the horizon.

The budget advanced by the Appropriations Committee strikes that balance, and I am grateful to Chairman Stinner and Committee members for their work. Their plan would help us continue to provide affordable, excellent education to Nebraska’s future workforce and maintain our trajectory in serving the state.

I’m often asked why an institution as large as the University can’t simply trim fat to manage a cut.

As a Republican and fiscal conservative, I’m keenly interested in making sure our University is as lean as possible. I’ve studied the numbers closely. Any way you look at the data, the University of Nebraska is doing business at far lower cost than our peers – the very institutions we want to compete with on and off the court.

UNL’s administrative costs, for example, are $52 million. Among our peers, the average is $117 million.

We have roughly the same number of employees funded by tax and tuition dollars as we did in 2000, even though we educate 17 percent more students and do more – and more ambitious – research than ever.

We return $6 for every $1 the state puts in.

Where we have grown our investments, we’ve done so in the best interests of Nebraskans. Have we hired more counselors and advisors to serve our record numbers of students? Have we added staff for projects like the health science complex in Kearney, which is training rural Nebraska’s future nurses and physician assistants? Are we willing to pay to attract the very best doctors to the Buffett Cancer Center? Absolutely.

The notion that the University is bloated makes a good headline, but it doesn’t stand up to the facts.

We’ll never stop looking for smarter ways to do business. We’re in the process now of making $30 million in administrative cuts. But we can only find so many efficiencies, which is why we’ve addressed tuition costs and begun a process for academic reductions. I’m not eager to go back to that well and put more on the backs of our students and families.

President Hank Bounds has called this a defining moment for our state. I agree. It’s time to make a choice about our priorities.

Some place will lead the way into the future. Why not Nebraska?

Media Contact:
Melissa Lee
Director of Communications,
University of Nebraska