I hope you are enjoying the holiday season with family and friends. I’m looking forward to celebrating a successful semester and a new class of University of Nebraska graduates in the weeks ahead.
On Friday I provided an update on our vision planning with the Board of Regents. I want to share the same information with you.
As you know, we are embarking on an ambitious effort to reimagine the University of Nebraska in today’s complex and changing higher education landscape. This is a challenging period, to be sure. But I have been energized to hear from so many of you who are choosing to view our challenges as opportunities – to answer our Board’s call to reprioritize our resources and become a more competitive, vibrant university worthy of readmission into the coalition of America’s most prestigious institutions.
The status quo will not get us back into the Association of American Universities. Nor should we count on significant new revenues coming to us from the outside. In particular, we have a responsibility to right-size our spending in line with our enrollment declines. The task – the opportunity – before us is to decide how we can best use our existing resources to invest in priorities, enhance our growth and set Nebraska apart.
As we shared with you in June, our “Five-Point Plan” includes a system-wide review of business and administrative functions that remain decentralized or distributed across the campuses. Our goal in this “zero-based budget” effort is to carefully consider how we would build the University of Nebraska’s non-academic enterprise if we were starting from zero: Would we use taxpayer dollars to stand up duplicate business and administrative functions? Or is there a more efficient way of operating that could free up funds to reinvest in high-growth academic programs, competitive salaries for top faculty and staff, research capacity and other priorities?
The chancellors, vice presidents and their teams have done extensive work to complete those reviews of business functions by Friday’s deadline. I am grateful for the time and effort so many of you have put into this process. Having our analyses in writing will help us make thoughtful, informed decisions about our path forward.
We have no predetermined answers at this stage. In the weeks ahead, chief financial officer and incoming Interim President Chris Kabourek and I will meet with each of your chancellors and chief business officers to review the materials and discuss our options. While we do not have the luxury of an extended timeline, we will not make any decisions in this calendar year, given the complexity of reviewing the business enterprise of a $3.3 billion organization. This will be a thoughtful process, involving input from campus leadership, our Board and other stakeholders, with careful consideration given to potential risks and rewards of any action. We will update you as these conversations move forward.
There has been a great deal of conversation within our University community and publicly about potential reductions to our academic enterprise. My own view is that we should identify every possible opportunity to become more efficient on the business side so we can protect academic programs to the greatest extent possible. But we also must accept the reality that we cannot be all things to all people.
The University of Nebraska has a proud history of offering a rich diversity of programs to our students, and we will continue to do so. But especially in view of our enrollment trends, that does not mean we can offer every program on every campus. We will need to make difficult decisions about the viability of programs that no longer enroll enough students to meet the state’s minimum performance standards. Asking taxpayers to subsidize programs that produce little to no graduates for our state is, I believe, a cost we can’t afford. We should instead use those dollars to invest in programs with high growth potential, where we can match students’ interests, meet Nebraska’s workforce needs and build our national reputation.
We do not make decisions about our academic programs lightly. Such decisions ultimately require Board of Regents approval after careful shared governance processes on the campus. I have pledged to our Board, as we have done in the past, that all students enrolled in an impacted program would be able to finish their degree before the program is phased out.
The University of Nebraska has faced inflection points throughout our 150-plus years, where leaders who came before us wrestled with hard choices. We are now at another such inflection point. A reflection on our history shows us that the things worth doing have rarely been easy. But we are stronger for having been bold and decisive.
We again have an opportunity to take decisive action – to set clear priorities, invest in what brings the greatest return, and once again be an AAU institution that transforms lives and communities in every corner of the state. I have great confidence in the work ahead under the vision and capable leadership of our Board, Interim President Kabourek, vice presidents, chancellors and their teams.
Thank you, as always, for all you do for the University of Nebraska and our 50,000 students.
President, University of Nebraska System