Delivered September 11, 2012
Harvey Perlman, Chancellor
We come together again for the annual occasion when you allow me to address you on the state of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The fact it occurs on a date of great tragedy in our country's history is driven by the constraints of scheduling and not by any design to incorporate or detract from our memory of those event. This occasion provides me an opportunity to showcase the talent and accomplishments of the university. As I said in my welcoming email, it is a gift we all share to work in a community so rich in talent and so tasked with such important and satisfying responsibilities.
I recognized that my use of country music last year may have startled or even unnerved some of you. So this year, to provide at least one elevating moment in these proceedings and to illustrate the talent we have among us, I am pleased to present the Skyros Quartet, a Graduate Quartet-in-Residence pursuing a doctorate in chamber music under the guidance of the Chiara Quartet. The violinists are Sarah Pizzichemi from Seattle, Washington, and James Moat from Toronto, Ontario. The violist is Justin Kurys from Timmins, Ontario, and the cellist is Willie Braun from Tucson, Arizona. Please welcome and enjoy the Skyros Quartet playing Mendelssohn.
The arts elevate our perspective but we should give science its due. I will now demonstrate the scientific principle that light travels faster than sound. I will appear very bright until you hear what I have to say. I understand that the School of Biological Sciences tried the monkeys-on-computers experiment to see if the monkeys could replicate the plays of Shakespeare -- but all they got were a collection of my State of the University speeches. I do want to respond to those of you who, after reading my welcoming email, accused me of being insane. I want to assure you I do not suffer from insanity. I enjoy every minute of it.
This annual ritual imposes a discipline to break free of the demands of the moment, to reflect back over the year past, and to plan for the year to come. It is an opportunity to consider how this university is positioned within the broader framework of higher education in the U.S. and the world. If we focused only on our local circumstances, we would conclude that we have made good progress on our major objectives, that we have begun initiatives that have significant potential, that we face exciting opportunities, and a manageable set of challenges.
However, we cannot divorce ourselves from considering the greater world and context of higher education. There is significant concern nationally about the cost of higher education. For many, the cause of our increases in tuition is as difficult to understand as why cemeteries need cost of living increases. While our university continues to have comparatively low tuition, while we exempt the poorest families from paying any tuition, and while our graduates leave us with an average debt much lower than is true for the country as a whole, we must still be aggressive stewards of our resources. We also must be aggressive advocates for the value of an education at a comprehensive research university. Nowhere is Warren Buffett's view more applicable-that cost is what you pay, but value is what you receive. The job market right now may be difficult for some of our graduates, but unemployment is lower and shorter and wages are higher among college graduates.
While there are places where higher education has lost the confidence of its constituents, I believe Nebraskans in large part continue to recognize the importance of the university in building a 21st Century economy, both through the cultivation of talented young people and the innovation of our faculty. The support for Innovation Campus from the Governor and Legislature is evidence of their understanding of our potential and the very significant interaction with such private sector companies as Bayer Crop Science demonstrates that potential being realized.
Public budgets are under stress and there is concern about the continued level of federal research support. Nebraska is not immune from the ebb and flow of the national economy, or the unpredictable nature of the farm economy, or the shifting public mood about taxes and debt. Nonetheless, feeding the world's population will continue to emerge as one of the most critical issues facing the world and we are uniquely positioned, in many ways, to contribute to a solution. The so-called "Arab Spring" is attributed to the hunger and desperation of the people in that region, emphasizing that food security is intimately tied to our national security. As an anonymous author wrote: "With all our artistic pretentions, our scientific accomplishments, our increased understanding of the human condition, we owe our existence to six inches of top soil and the fact that it rains." This year's drought underlines this reality.
We cannot afford to be indifferent to the recent disclosures of misdeeds at some of our peer institutions, such as Penn State and North Carolina. In one version, Penn State is the failure of otherwise good people to come forward to report and to protect the victims of a sexual predator. In North Carolina, it appears to be a failure within the academic community to enforce agreed-to standards of performance and thereby allow student athletes to remain eligible. We should and we will make every effort to review these and other cases for lessons to be learned, not because I think we have similar issues, but rather, because we should always be alert to suggestions that can improve our processes and give reassurance to our constituents that we take these matters seriously. So we are examining the Freeh Report and its recommendations for Penn State to assess whether any of them are applicable here, and I will ask the Intercollegiate Athletics Committee of the Faculty Senate to review the curriculum taken by student athletes to reaffirm, what I believe, that our athletes embrace the same academic demands as students at large.
Another high profile development is the rise of companies such as Coursera and Udacity which offer free non-credit courses on line from universities such as Stanford, CalTech, Princeton and others. These MOOC's -- or Massive Open Online Courses -- are attracting a wide range of speculation about their impact on the future of higher education. As they evolve they may be a threat to traditional higher education or they may create opportunities. I have asked a small group of faculty and administrators, chaired by Steve Goddard of Computer Science, to suggest how we might respond to these developments. As with many of the challenges we face, the issue is not whether MOOC's are a good thing or a bad thing. They are part of our existing reality and we should try to exploit that reality for our university.