Today I am presenting the Board of Regents with our vision for accelerating the University of Nebraska’s growth and momentum during this pivotal period for higher education. I want to share the same information with you.
The challenges before us, as you know, are significant: Rapid inflation, limited new revenues, declining enrollment and an increasingly competitive market for talent. At the same time, a vibrant and growing public university has never been more important to the success of our state and its citizens.
Traditionally when faced with a shortfall, we have spread reductions across the university, asking all units to take a share until we balance the books. We considered that approach again. But a perpetual “cut” mindset will only keep us static. And our regents have rejected the likely consequences of the peanut-butter approach: a weakening of our institution across the board at the very time when we need to reject the status quo and step up our efforts to compete in the Big Ten and nationally.
Instead, the Board has asked for a new approach to resource deployment so that we can fully maximize our potential to be a world-class, competitive, dynamic university.
Implementing new strategies takes time. Our first task is to preserve cash in the short term. Therefore, we will take the following steps across the University of Nebraska System effective July 1:
- A hiring freeze on all non-faculty positions. Administrative positions that come open may not be refilled without approval from the Office of the President. Managerial/ professional and office/ service positions may not be refilled without approval from the relevant campus chancellor.
- A temporary 2.5 percent quarterly rescission on all departmental operating and supply budgets.
While unpleasant, these steps will mitigate our need to draw on one-time cash to maintain our operations. And we anticipate they will be temporary as we are able to realize longer-term savings.
This brings us to our broader vision – a five-point plan to reimagine ourselves so that we continue to change the lives of students and people around the world for our next 150 years and beyond. Our ultimate goal with this vision is to free up the resources necessary for the University of Nebraska to reach a new level of excellence – through investments in bold priorities like competitive faculty salaries, student mental health, and world-leading academic programs.
Our five-point vision includes:
A reinvigorated focus on student recruitment, with a goal of reversing our recent enrollment declines. We will launch multiple efforts to blanket Nebraska with recruitment ambassadors, and rethink our Regents Scholarship into a more competitive scholarship program that covers students’ total cost of attendance.
A renewed commitment to raising our academic profile and national presence. The University of Nebraska was one of the first 20 universities admitted into the Association of American Universities, a coalition of the nation’s most elite research institutions. It’s time for us to reclaim that pioneering spirit. We must be unafraid to say that we want to be counted among the very best universities in the country.
We will immediately begin measuring ourselves against the AAU’s membership criteria. I will also task a team with working through the process of reporting UNL and UNMC research as one combined figure. Stronger alignment between our two statewide research institutions is a great benefit to both, and to our state as a whole – likely a reason why every other Big Ten university except one, and three-quarters of public AAU institutions, are aligned with a medical center. The immediate impact is significant: When UNL, UNMC and system-wide institute research figures are combined, we advance from 87th in the nation to 55th. In federally funded R&D, we vault from 117th to 66th.
Stronger dialogue about our academic program array. Nebraska’s Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education already sets minimum performance standards for instructional programs. We will establish a dashboard to more proactively measure our programs against the CCPE’s performance standards, with a goal of spotting warning signs earlier and strengthening our offerings. We will also review programs offered at multiple campuses for collaborative opportunities.
Stronger communication around our budget and vision planning. I plan to host regular Zoom forums for all members of the university community to hear from me directly and ask questions, and we will convene a council of the vice presidents, chancellors, deans, faculty senate presidents and student body presidents to provide updates and share ideas.
A focus on operational excellence. In recent years we have been successful in streamlining our IT, procurement and facilities functions, allowing us to realize $25 million in savings and protect academic programs. But many other business and administrative functions remain distributed across our system. We will assess those areas to determine the most effective and efficient approach.
Additionally, we will launch a zero-based budgeting effort in our business and finance and other administrative areas to ensure that every expenditure is justified. This process will give us an opportunity to ask ourselves how we would build our functions if we were starting from zero. I expect to stand up a team soon, including key campus leaders, to begin this process in earnest.
No doubt these reviews will involve hard questions and difficult choices. But particularly at a time when our Board has made clear that a “business as usual” mindset is no longer sustainable, I believe we owe it to ourselves – and to taxpayers – to critically consider whether we are missing opportunities to take advantage of our scale and operate more efficiently.
We will share more information on each of these efforts as we finalize the details.
We have a great deal of work ahead of us, without the luxury of extended time to find savings. We should all be prepared to make sacrifices and to be willing to think differently about how we do our work. Yet I am truly energized about the opportunity to reframe this process as a conversation about how we invest in growth for the benefit of students, our workforce and communities here and around the world. As I have said before, I believe Nebraska can create the blueprint for higher education reform. That is possible because of all of you. I look forward to working together to reimagine the University of Nebraska for the future.
Thank you for all you do for our university and state.
President, University of Nebraska System