Harvey Perlman, Chancellor
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
This will be the fourth time I have had the privilege to report to you on the state of your university. Notwithstanding all that we have been through during the past several months, I am pleased to say that your university remains strong, that its upward momentum continues, and that it enjoys considerable opportunities for further achievement. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in each of its missions – teaching, research, and outreach – remains an engaged and essential asset upon which the future of the State of Nebraska depends.
During the past year I have often felt like the narrator in George Orwell’s short story “Shooting the Elephant,” who opens the story by saying: “I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” The narrator is asked by villagers to kill an elephant that was threatening them. Over the past few months, I imagine many of you may have felt like the elephant. I would have given anything to spare you, our university, the citizens of Nebraska, and myself the pain we have endured. I made the decisions I thought would be in the long-term best interest of the university. While I appreciated your strong expression of support for my actions, I also recognize and respect the views of those who disagreed. My hope is that we can all move forward to make this a great university.
Last year I quoted a Winston Churchill line, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” It became the unwitting theme of last year. While many of us in administrative and other official capacities were consumed by budget matters, the rest of you indeed “kept going.” Your record of achievement during one of the most difficult years in the history of the university is quite remarkable. The risk of omission is high but I hope you will permit me to applaud you all by mentioning some of our accomplishments. They paint a picture of a university that is clearly a major participant in the academic world and in serving the people of Nebraska.
Consider some of the honors and accomplishments of our faculty. The most exciting news was the selection of James Van Etten, the William Allington Distinguished Professor of Plant Pathology, to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors that can be accorded a U.S. Scientist. Jim is only the third member of the Academy in the history of Nebraska. We should give him our special applause.
Biochemist Stephen Ragsdale, with colleagues at MIT, made a major discovery, reported in Science, of a “supercluster” of metals within a single metal. Of course Steve has become a national folk hero for also discovering how to control methane in beef cattle flatulence.
UNL Economist Greg Hayden is the 34th winner of the Association for Evolutionary Economics annual Veblen-Commons Award. Together with UNL’s Wallace Peterson, they make Nebraska the only institution with two winners of this award.
John R. Wunder, professor of history, has won a lifetime achievement award from Native American scholars and historians of the Western History Association. Wunder is only the sixth scholar to receive this lifetime achievement award, the first from Nebraska.
Three junior faculty members were awarded CAREER or K01 Awards from NSF and NIMH, bringing to 11 the number of our faculty who have received these development grants that both recognize the quality of their existing research but also their potential for significant further research. Our three most recent award winners are:
Kimberly Tyler, assistant professor of sociology for her study of adults who were neglected and abused young adults; David DiLillo, assistant professor of psychology, for his study of abused children; and Stephanie Adams, assistant professor of industrial and management systems engineering and special assistant to the dean of Graduate Studies, for her efforts to enhance engineering education.
Two faculty received National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships. Carole Levin, Willa Cather Professor and professor of history, is spending 2003 in residence at Chicago’s Newberry Library and David Wishart, professor of geography, spent the spring semester originating research on drought.
The Association for the Education of Teachers of Science has named Ron Bonnstetter, professor of teaching, learning and teacher education, as the first winner of its Outstanding Science Teacher Educator of the Year award.
Marilyn Grady, professor of educational administration, has been named the first winner of the Stanley A. Brzezinksi Memorial Rural Education Award by the National Rural Education Association.
Alexandra L. Basolo, associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences, has been named by Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, as the recipient of its 2003 Young Investigator Award.
Geography professors J. Clark Archer and Stephen Lavin's co-authored book, “Atlas of American Politics 1960 to 2000,” has been named an outstanding academic title by Choice, the review of books for academic libraries.
Dean Sicking and his team at the Engineering College who developed the SAFER barrier used at the Indianapolis 500 and other racetracks will be recognized by R & D magazine, which selected the SAFER barrier as one of the 100 most technologically significant products introduced into the marketplace over the past year.
Several faculty at IANR were also nationally recognized for their teaching. The 28,000-member Institute of Food Technologists gave food science professor John Rupnow its award for teaching excellence. Julie Johnson, professor of family and consumer science, earned similar national honors from the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. In 2002, professor of agribusiness Ron Hanson was the first Nebraskan ever to earn teaching excellence honors from the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture. UNL Animal Scientist Terry Klopfenstein in June received top honors from the American Society of Animal Science for his commitment to teaching.
I am also pleased that we again recognized several members of our faculty with Cather/Bessey Professorships for their outstanding record of achievement. This year’s selections were:
- David Cahan, of history
- Patricia Cox Crews, of textiles, clothing and design
- Martin Dickman, of plant pathology
- Carolyn Pope Edwards, of psychology and family & consumer sciences
- Karen Kunc, of art and art history
- Marshall Olds, of modern languages
- Stephen Ragsdale, of biochemistry
- Susan Sheridan, of educational psychology
- Robert Spreitzer, of biochemistry
Our expectation is that in the future, one or two faculty members will annually be awarded Cather/Bessey Professorships.
We had three winners of university systemwide honors. Jim Lewis, professor of mathematics, was recognized with the Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Creativity Award. And two Outstanding Research and Creative Activity Awards went to Stephen Ragsdale in biochemistry and John Turner in classics and religious studies.
We also recognized teaching excellence. Calvin Garbin, associate professor of psychology, and Jim Lewis, professor of mathematics, were made members of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.
As a university we need to celebrate our successes but unfortunately we often do not know about the exciting work being done in other departments or disciplines. I am pleased, therefore, that the Research Council in collaboration with the Vice Chancellor for Research will initiate this year The Nebraska Lectures, the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series. The council will invite members of our own faculty to address the university community so we can all share in their work. Our newest National Academy member, Jim Van Etten, has agreed to deliver the inaugural lecture. I encourage all of you to participate in this important initiative.
There are non-faculty staff who not only contribute to our success but are also recognized nationally for their own independent achievements. Our peer alcohol educators were recognized nationally as the Outstanding Network Affiliate among 850 affiliates nationwide and their adviser, Bob Schroeder of the University Health Center, was named the 2002 Outstanding Adviser.
Celika Caldwell, technology transfer associate, received from the Association for University Technology Managers, the Howard Bremer Scholarship, recognizing outstanding new professionals in the field of university technology transfer.
Nebraska ETV Network executive producer Christine Lesiak received national recognition for outstanding achievement in writing for television at the 55th Annual Writers Guild Awards for documentary writing for her script of “Monkey Trial.”
Lola Young, a residence life services supervisor, was recognized by the National Association of Educational Office Professionals as the Educational Office Professional of the Year.
This should remind us to celebrate the quiet but critical daily support we receive from our managerial/professional and office/service staff that makes many of our achievements possible.
In 2003, UNL’s research funding increased significantly, with federal research awards, up by 7.56 percent to $56.6 million. Total research funding increased 13.4 percent, to $84.4 million. Total sponsored programs funding, which includes funding for research and non-research activities such as instruction, public service, administration, and student services, amounted to $142 million. A small sample of some of our new research efforts suggests the range of ways this university is contributing to the world's storehouse of knowledge and to the quality of lives of citizens of Nebraska and the world.
• A study of substance abuse among Native American children and an effort to develop culturally-specific interventions
• A center for the study of Redox Biology with important potential for improving human health.
• A Materials Research Science and Engineering Center to further our work in nanotechnology.
• A Plant Genome Research Center where we are the lead institution of six other institutions studying how to regulate plant tolerance of disease and environmental stresses, such as drought and cold.
• A new center to study mesospin structures, funded by the Los Angeles-based Keck Foundation, the first Keck grant awarded to Nebraska researchers.
• A project spearheaded by our State Museum, in cooperation with five other natural history museums, to fund exhibits and informal education packages on the topic of evolution.
• The development of an electronic archive of Walt Whitman's work and other reference materials and other recent grants to build our digital libraries.
• A project to produce Nebraska's event celebrating the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery expedition including a one-act play, a commissioned musical piece and a dance performed by Native Americans.
• The Northeast Nebraska Para-Educator Career Ladder Project to help up to 30 Hispanic bilingual para-educators earn bachelor's degrees education from UNL and supplemental ESL endorsements.
• The grant to enhance coordination of the behavioral health care system at the state and community levels.
• Creation of a unique high-tech laboratory to find ways to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by storing more of it in the soil, a process called carbon sequestration
• An innovative technology for cleaning up contaminated soil and water which could save millions of dollars in toxic waste cleanup costs and speed up the remediation process.
These are but a few of the achievements of our research enterprise, proof that the drafters of our 2020 Vision were correct in thinking that an institutional strategy of increased collaboration and elevated ambitions, when applied by a talent faculty, can produce striking results.
We should also be proud of the progress we are making, both in the recruitment and retention of undergraduate students. We are increasingly positioned to retain the best students in Nebraska and to provide them with a rigorous and competitive undergraduate experience. Notwithstanding the tuition increases and elimination of two undergraduate programs, it appears this year’s entering class will be substantially the same size as last year’s class. More importantly it will have strengthened academic credentials and be one of the most ethnically diverse classes to enter the university. Four of its members have perfect ACT scores, it has more National Merit scholars per capita than any other university’s entering class except one, more students are in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating classes, and more students are from out of state. The enrollment of students of color is up 15 percent. Alan Cerveny, as Dean of Admissions, and Rita Kean as our new Dean of Undergraduate Studies, have brought new energy and collaboration to both recruiting and retention but more importantly we are seeing greater participation from academic departments and individual faculty. Moreover, our investments in the Honors programs, freshman scholars program, UCARE, learning communities, and other enhancements are giving us a more attractive product to sell. An important facet of our recruiting and retention efforts is also the quality of our on-campus student housing. With the retirement of the bonds on our high-rise residence halls, University Housing has begun implementing an exciting 10-year master plan to substantially upgrade our existing halls and to add new modern facilities. This is critical work and important for all of us as student numbers and student success enhances our reputation as a university as well as provides a solid base of financial support.
We can take pride in the accomplishments of our student body. Again, by way of example:
• Megan Spilinek, from Weeping Water, was one of four Air Force ROTC cadets in the nation to receive the Legion of Valor Bronze Cross for Achievement and was one of 76 scholars from 63 institutions to win a coveted Truman Scholarship.
• Mark Stigge, a senior math major from Wichita, Kansas, who was one of only 100 students nationwide out of 2,500 applicants to win an inaugural U.S. Department of Homeland Security Scholarship.
• You should all examine the extraordinary 75-page magazine and broadcast documentary on Cuba that has achieved national acclaim and attention and was produced by a team of our Journalism students who made a unique fact-finding mission to Cuba.
• The University of Nebraska-Lincoln forensic team finished in the top ten at two national competitions in April and Juanita Page, of Omaha, earned first place in program of oral interpretation of literature and fourth place in the poetry interpretation and prose interpretation events.
• Andy Szatko, a UNL student from Ralston, will be one of 15 finalists from across the globe honored at the 2003 Global Student Entrepreneur Awards in Chicago.
• Chris Gustafson, from Mead, a recent UNL College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources graduate earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Italy. As a university we have also made significant contributions in outreach and extension.
• UNL weed scientists developed a decision-support software, called WeedSOFT, which is now being adopted in other states to help farmers control weeds effectively while saving money and protecting the environment.
• An NU Cooperative Extension food safety and nutrition Web site has earned national recognition as among the best for nutrition accuracy, depth and usefulness
• UNL’s Department of Entomology on-line master’s degree program recently earned recognition from the American Distance Education Consortium.
Let me mention a few other developments that deserve our special attention.
• UNL's Department of Mathematics was selected as one of eight math departments nationwide to participate in a national project to review and overhaul doctoral education. This is a significant recognition of the accomplishments of the department and places them among the very best math departments in the country.
• UNL is also among the nation’s leading universities serving the meat and poultry industry, according to Meat and Poultry Magazine. The publication ranked UNL fourth in its annual rankings, citing the university’s Food Processing Center and work by food and animal scientists.
Finally, last year we dedicated four new or renovated buildings, each of which will play an important role in enhancing our academic programs. The Sheldon Gallery is now reopened after significant upgrading of its climate control and other systems and we can now comfortably fulfill our responsibilities toward that remarkable collection of American Art. The Law College has expanded and upgraded its library and in the process has transformed the building and its environment. We dedicated Othmer Hall that should permit the Engineering College and particularly Chemical Engineering to make significant programmatic advances. And we now have the Van Brunt Visitors Center and Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center to welcome visitors and prospective students to our campus and to give the film theater a home of its own.
I fear that my recitation of our achievements will soon exceed your patience. But I think it is critical after what we endured last year, that you know, and the people of Nebraska know, that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is alive and well and experiencing much success.
These achievements emphasize why it is critical that we make the hard decisions necessary to protect our strengths and that we avoid across-the-board cuts that damage all programs. Otherwise, I fear, we will start to resemble the roadside work crew I recently observed. One man would dig a hole two or three feet deep and then move on. Another man came along behind him and filled in the hole. When I asked them what they were doing, the first man said: “We’re just doing our job. We work for the State and we’re suppose to plant trees. Normally there are three of us: me, Sam, and John. I dig the hole, Sam sticks in the tree, and John puts the dirt back. Sam’s job’s been cut so now its just me and John.” If we need to do less, so be it, but what we do we must be positioned to do well.
As I now look forward toward the coming year I want to first make a personal comment. Our progress will be made more difficult by Rick Edwards’ decision to return to the faculty at the end of this calendar year. As Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, he has brought a strong and persistent commitment to excellence, a creative and effective administrative talent, and a clear vision of what was required of a great research and land-grant university. His fingerprints are indelibly imprinted on so many of our achievements, such as the 2020 Vision Report, that are now embedded in our culture and will influence the university for years to come. Here is one clear example of why sometimes it is better to reject the “inside candidate” in favor of new blood from outside. I will personally miss his daily counsel, but am very pleased that he will remain on our faculty and continue to contribute to the university. Rick, I invite you to stand and allow us to show our appreciation for all that you have done for the university.
I am sure some of you will be disappointed to learn that I have not forgotten about the Gallup process. Our attempt to use the Gallup materials was admittedly an experiment. However, I remain convinced that the Q12 and the I 10 address in useful ways many of the issues of climate, of culture, and of process that generate the most concern about life at this university. If we could fully implement the Gallup process we could significantly improve the quality of the work experience for all of us. At the same time, I am fully aware that there are aspects of the survey that have caused concern. It is difficult in a research university to define for each employee his or her appropriate work unit the place or group of fellow employees that dictate the work climate an employee experiences. I am sure, with time, we can come closer than we did even though we may never achieve perfection.
There were concerns that some of the factors impacting the climate within a unit were not within the unit’s control but could only be solved at a higher administrative level. We did not do an effective job of emphasizing a key part of the Gallup process itself, which is that any unit can identify an “elevated issue,” which is then forwarded to the next higher level. This would be a very helpful process that could give me a systematic way of learning how the campus administration could better support you in your activities. But it should not be an excuse for units ignoring issues over which they do have control.
There are also quibbles with the wording of some of the questions. And there must be something about our personalities or our commitment to intellectually rigorous discourse that makes us resistant to the idea that we could have, or should have, a best friend at work. Before we conduct the survey we will work with Gallup to determine how much flexibility we might have in adjusting the questions without losing the value of our initial effort and their research.
Nonetheless my intention is to run the Gallup survey again as soon as proper adjustments can be considered. However, I will not require any unit with strong feelings against the survey to participate. I will ask those that opt out to tell me specifically how they propose to work together to measure and improve the work climate and processes within their unit. In the end, for faculty and staff, the quality of the workplace environment is determined in large part by the climate created in the units in which they work, and only those within the units can make real improvements. In the end, if barriers of climate or process prevent us from taking full advantage of each person’s skills and talents, we will have an artificial ceiling on how good we can become.
We must continue to work toward a university and a society that is equally open and embracing, of all races, genders or ethnic backgrounds, and of individuals whose religious or political persuasions, physical abilities, or sexual orientations are different from our own. The Gallup process is only one of many steps we can take to improve the climate for both students and employees. Our Admissions Office has demonstrated that enhanced efforts can bring us a more diverse student body and some units have been very successful in attracting diverse faculty and staff. There are, to be sure, long historical patterns and practices, both in the nation and within higher education that we must overcome. While we must leave no doubt about our commitment to a diverse community where everyone is treated fairly, we will not make progress if we are consumed by the past or if we focus our attention and energies exclusively on the general state of the human condition. We are less capable of changing hearts and minds than we are of changing the processes that create barriers for some to succeed. We must get busy on matters over which we have control, on practical issues that can make a difference and make us a more attractive place for all.
We need to revisit our current diversity plan. The last plan was created in 1999 and had multiple recommendations covering a wide range of issues. Some of these have been fully or partially implemented. Others are no longer applicable or feasible. We need to reexamine this plan and develop a revised set of realistic, prioritized action steps.
I have proposed to the Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of Women a new organizational structure that would continue the overall Commission but also create three separate councils that could help me address issues that separately impact faculty, students, and staff. We experimented with this structure last spring, with some success. It permitted us to focus on specific objectives and concerns and has resulted in an initiative to develop best practice guidelines for maternity and family leave policies, follow-up exit interviews by Commission members with women faculty who leave the university, and the development of more effective and aggressive strategies for recruiting and retaining women faculty, staff, and students. Women students raised the question that women ROTC cadets had no women officers to confide in and I am pleased that our ROTC departments creatively responded to this concern. I intend to restructure the Commission on the Status of People of Color in the same way. We were able last year to hire an assistant director to work with our gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual community. As increasing numbers of Fortune 500 companies and peer universities are discovering, we must, to remain competitive, be responsive to the needs and aspirations of these members of our community.
PROGRAMS OF EXCELLENCE
Notwithstanding our budget restraints, the Board of Regents has adopted a budget that provides additional funding for our programs of excellence. We have initiated a process to update our priorities with the possibility of funding a few additional initiatives. In several areas the program of excellence funds have been the catalyst for new efforts and collaborations with very real potential. We have invested to improve our undergraduate programs. We have been able to recruit established scholars from other Universities. Thanks to Jonis Agee and Linda Pratt we held the first Nebraska Writers’ Conference, a big success by all accounts. I know it is difficult to accept elimination of programs in response to budget cuts and the simultaneous investment in our priorities. If, however, we are to have, as the Report of the Blue Sky Committee urges, “an uncompromising pursuit of excellence,” then we must stay the course, however difficult. I commend to your attention the Blue Sky Report as an assessment of our more visible efforts to pursue our 2020 Vision.
COLLEGE OF EDUCATION AND HUMAN SCIENCES
It is not every day that this university creates a new college, particularly one that is formed by joining the talents and resources of two existing colleges. This is the inaugural year for the College of Education and Human Sciences and we should all wish it much success. The two faculties have expended considerable effort and have surmounted many barriers in creating this college and, as they know, much effort and more barriers lie ahead. However, the opportunities presented are unlimited: to create a new program of teacher training that responds to the very different and real demands that face teachers today; to integrate the training of professionals who interact with families, and communities, and schools, so that they can provide more comprehensive and more holistic assistance in these important areas. I applaud the efforts of Deans Jim O’Hanlon and Marjorie Kostelnik for leading this effort, and, more importantly, I applaud the faculty of the two former colleges who had the courage to challenge the unknown and to try to create a distinctive program that will better serve their students and enrich their own set of opportunities.
We have many additional initiatives that we must undertake this year that are important to the university. The National Research Council will be conducting its ratings of graduate programs and how we fare will be important to our standing among major universities. Our preparation for this exercise is critical, and I urge all of you in the rated disciplines to assist our Office of Graduate Studies as it develops the material upon which our rating will depend.
Vice Chancellor Prem Paul and his staff continue not only to enhance our research competitiveness but also to enhance our ability to transfer the product of our research to commercial use. There are several examples of faculty research that have contributed significantly to the economic output of Nebraska and as our economy becomes more oriented toward technology the university’s participation in economic development will become substantially more important. We have started to build a technology development staff who can assist faculty to commercialize the products of our research. This is an important function of a modern university and an important tool in recruiting faculty.
Your recent achievements in research have produced a number of challenges, not the least of which is the shortage of quality research space. The Beadle Center is more than full and we are forced to make very difficult allocations of space there. Computer Science in Lincoln and Architectural Engineering in Omaha have been forced to rent commercial space for their research activities. We were fortunate to have purchased the Textron property, located ideally between Beadle and the Engineering College; that eventually gives us the land for the development of greater research facilities. In the interim we are exploring whether the current structures give us any usable space for such purpose. With the eventual consolidation of the branch science libraries, we will have additional space in Hamilton, Manter, and Brace available for research. We are actively seeking private donations and external grants that will assist us in providing the physical facilities necessary for a major research university.
Finally, let me propose a major initiative that we can undertake together to further build on our success. We will continue to operate in an environment of restrained resources. We hope to be spared any additional major budget reductions but we have no such assurance. These matters remain largely out of our control and are the same challenges facing almost all of our peers. We must plan and act with a realistic sense of the environment in which we live and yet we cannot be complacent with the status quo nor sacrifice our aspirations. We must proceed to pursue our 2020 Vision. We must also focus renewed attention on our students and their success. We must build a student-focused, research university – one that expects its collective faculty to excel in advancing student learning as well as research and creative activity – one that recognizes the central role played by the faculty but also engages all employees in the enterprise to prepare students for success.
As I have acknowledged repeatedly, the good work of the university is accomplished by faculty and the staff that support them. The talents, skills, and energy of the faculty are this university’s greatest resource and the ability of faculty and their staff to direct their energies to the central missions of the university will determine the level of our achievements. There are those in the public and in the media who question whether the workloads of faculty are sufficient to justify the public support currently given to the university. They cannot understand how being in a classroom six to nine hours per week is a full-time job, even though they seem to have no difficult accepting the idea that one sermon on Sunday morning justifies a full-time preacher. I know this public view contrasts sharply with the sense among faculty generally that the demands on their time and the pressures to be accountable are rapidly increasing.
At this university, as well as at many others, the number of tenured and tenure track faculty is in decline. During the last five years, the number of such faculty declined by almost 5 percent. Where in 1998 we had 1,124 tenure track faculty, in 2002 we had 1,071. The number of specific term faculty has also declined by 4.5 percent. During the same period there was a 3.5 percent increase in the number of credit hours produced, a 33 percent increase in the research grants submitted, and a 35 percent increase in research grants awarded. While we don’t have longitudinal data from 1998, we know that during the last two years, 33 percent of our student body had a meaningful research experience requiring the direct supervision of an individual faculty member, we have seen an increase of 100 percent in the number of nationally competitive awards won by undergraduates, often with the direct involvement of faculty, and that our instruction of students who do not reside on our campus, through distance education or professional programming, have more than doubled during the last year alone.
We do not have data on many of the other activities that increasingly place demands on our faculty. Although faculty don’t, like preachers, perform marriages, they do officiate at numerous rites of passage and celebration, counsel the academically sick and dying and make efforts to console their friends and relatives, attend numerous obligatory on- and off-campus events, and tend to a wide variety of needs of their classroom and discipline-based congregations. As preachers must do with their faith, faculty study to renew their discipline and apply their discipline to the problems of the human condition.
One of the challenges we face in enhancing the programs of the university is how we account for what appears to be long-term trends of restrained resources and declining numbers of faculty. We will, of course, actively work to protect and increase the current size of the faculty if we can, but I think such efforts will be difficult. Thus I propose we initiate a campus conversation to see if we can find creative ways to address this issue. The Academic Senate Executive Committee has indicated its support for such a conversation. Indeed it has already taken the lead on several steps directed toward these issues.
For practical purposes we have a critical finite resource, the time of the faculty. I assume that the men and women of this faculty chose their career because they enjoyed helping students learn, pursuing their curiosity in research and creative activities, and serving their fellow citizens. If we can maximize the time faculty are permitted to spend on these central missions and if we can improve their effectiveness when they do so, we can at the same time make this a better university and improve the quality of each faculty member’s experience. So what do we do? I have no detailed prescription or plan in mind. Rather, as is true for most academic issues, the best-informed thinking is most likely to rest with the faculty. But I think all of us must become educated and engaged if progress is to be made.
The Academic Senate has already taken one step in what has been affectionately named the “wasted time” committee. This committee is attempting to examine ways in which we might streamline our processes and thus protect faculty time. Senior Vice Chancellor Edwards has also developed a keen interest in the work of this committee, especially since his decision to return to the faculty. Designating the committee the “wasted time” committee certainly achieved national notoriety, but that should not be understood to eliminate only activities that are nonproductive. The question we must consistently ask is not whether an activity produces something good but rather whether time spent elsewhere would produce something better.
At a recent workshop of departmental chairs, a number of issues surfaced that bear reexamination through this prism. Do we invest unwisely in the annual evaluation of every faculty member and administrator, particularly those who have tenure, or would less frequent but more intense reviews not only be more meaningful but save time? Is the course approval process too complex, not only engaging many faculty in several layers of review, but also serving as a disincentive to propose new courses, to experiment, and to abandon courses that are outdated. Is the complexity of the IS/ES course inventory, not only creating confusion and irritation among our students, but preventing us from allocating faculty time in an efficient way? I know the Academic Senate is examining the issue of IS/ES courses and I look forward to its findings. Is our promotion and tenure process too formalistic, requiring too much documentation? Do we meet too often about too many things of insufficient importance? All of these issues deserve our attention and our openness to the idea that we may be consuming too much faculty time to prevent risks that are too small to matter. I know I risk treading here on faculty governance and that some of you are suspicious of me in that regard already. Certainly within areas where academic and disciplinary judgments are required as well as on matters central to our direction the faculty must have a strong and undiminished voice. But let me invite you to consider whether we might find a better way for you to check the risks of administrative excess than extensive engagement in the details of day-to-day administration. Are there ways that we could improve the process for evaluating administrative officers so that the faculty could comfortably focus less on individual decisions knowing that at regular interviews a meaningful evaluation would take place? Can we create a sufficiently credible system of academic reviews that would alleviate the need for elaborate processes prior to implementing new courses or programs? I don’t know if these ideas are acceptable or realistic or even whether they would save resources but we should discuss them to see if they hold promise.
The second initiative related to the use of faculty resources is perhaps even more controversial but probably more important to the long-term management of our academic program. My sense is that in our research and service missions we are becoming increasingly efficient in how we utilize faculty time. However, the teaching enterprise, for many faculty, and more importantly the institutional rules governing the management of undergraduate education, have remained largely unchanged. As one of my colleagues observed, he and I are part of the lecture-em, test-em, pass-em and flunk-em generation of teachers. On the other hand, there has been considerable rethinking, both at this university and at other institutions, about how we should teach and evaluate undergraduates. The central shift has been from an emphasis on teaching to an emphasis on student learning. This change of perspective is thought to have potential for improving the undergraduate experience. Significantly, more recent commentary has also suggested that it has the very important potential for reducing the costs of education while improving the quality of how faculty spend their working hours.
If we take seriously the idea that student learning is the desired outcome, then we might reexamine some of our traditional practices. We might, for example, develop good assessment tools for measuring student progress that could substitute for how many hours they sat in class, or how many classes they took, or for how long they matriculated at the university. A focus on student learning would also give us a standard for evaluating educational technology and how we might appropriately use it to relieve faculty of routine tasks. A standard of student learning might also help us solve the seemingly intractable problem of avoiding overlaps and gaps in our curricula. We might discover, for example, that it would be possible to reduce the required hours for graduation, which seem currently on an ever-upward spiral. We might discover that good learning can occur, more efficiently, with a combination of very large classrooms – a setting we have traditionally avoided – and more intimate interactions between students and faculty members. If we were able to successfully assess when learning occurs, we may discover unique ways in which non-faculty staff and others might appropriately fit into the learning enterprise.
With our traditional method of organizing instruction, what we can achieve is limited. Improvements depend too heavily on adding additional faculty members and on increasing the hours for graduation. This requires increasing institutional resources with resulting increasing costs for students.
The question then, is whether we might be able to create a structure for our undergraduate program that was more intense and more pervasive, that contributed to student learning in a more holistic fashion, and at the same time improve the use of our most valuable resource, the time of our faculty. To go down this path would require considerable courage and effort on the part of the faculty as well as a commitment on the part of the administration at all levels to permit, support, and encourage innovation and experimentation.
I am not yet prepared to initiate a formal process to move us in that direction. I believe at this point it is enough to start a conversation across this campus as to whether this is a direction that makes sense in our context. I will over the course of the next semester seek to engage many of you who have already thought about these matters to refine my own thinking. I will encourage deans and department heads and chairs to have their faculty consider whether and how such a shift in emphasis might improve both the student and the faculty experience.
I do not know, and am reluctant to predict, what lies ahead of us in the coming year. Certainly there are signs that the Nebraska economy, indeed the national economy, is not reviving fast enough to provide us relief from our budget troubles. The picture across the landscape of public higher education in this country is threatened by the sorry state of revenues and competing demands. It gives small comfort that most other public universities face similar issues. But it should remind us that when this period is over, some universities will be more competitive and some will be less so. My intention is to make us more competitive. To do so I need not only your support but also your engagement. I value your perspectives, even if they differ from my own. I encourage, I appreciate, and I need your dissents as well as your ideas.
In my visits with legislators and with people across the state of Nebraska I have argued that the future of our state depends upon the strength of its research university. Nebraska, to succeed, must add to its store of young people. This university is the state’s most important asset if we are to keep our young at home and attract talent from other states. Nebraska, to succeed, must strengthen and add value to its agricultural base but must also diversify its economic activity. History provides irrefutable proof that the advance of agricultural critically depends on the research and outreach from this university. It is no coincidence that over the past year and one-half, the leaders of the agricultural community have been among our strongest advocates. And if Nebraska is to build new industries, from information technology to biotechnology, our university must be a strong and committed partner. Going forward, I cannot think of one positive scenario for the future of Nebraska that does not depend, in part, on the health of this university.
Thus, it is critical to our success in the months ahead that through your efforts we continue to demonstrate the substance of my argument. Every day, each of us must find a way to ensure that this university makes it difficult for good students to leave Nebraska and attractive for good students from other states to study here. Every day, each of us must focus on the critical missions of the university – to teach, to contribute to the quality of life of our citizens through research or creative activity, and to participate in our land-grant obligation to extend our research and teaching skills in service to those on whose support we depend. I applaud you for what you have been able to accomplish under the most trying of circumstances and I remain committed to doing what I can to support you in the future.