Skip Navigation

State of the University Address, 2004

SEPTEMBER 10, 2004

Harvey Perlman, Chancellor

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Campuswide Challenges and Initiatives

I want now to turn to six initiatives that I propose we take to meet the challenges that face us as a university. I hope to move forward with them immediately but they should also be addressed during the planning process. The first is enrollment.


Enrollment

We have been frequently criticized in the past for not recruiting the best and brightest of Nebraska's high school seniors, many of whom were leaving the state. We responded to that challenge. Admissions Dean Alan Cerveny, with the help of the academic deans and faculty across the university, are implementing a very effective and competitive recruiting effort. This year's freshman class has the highest academic credentials in the history of the University. Their average ACT score increased by four-10ths of a point to 24.8. In addition we enrolled a higher number of minority students. In many respects, we should be proud of these results. However, although final enrollment numbers won't be out until Sept. 15, we anticipate that total enrollment will be down. I needn't remind you that there is a very direct link between enrollment and our level of resources and this year's decline has financial implications that are likely to be felt across the university. The recruitment of students is everyone's responsibility and in everyone's self-interest. We have seen much broader and more active support for our recruiting efforts and I am grateful to you for your help but we will need to increase those efforts considerably.

There appears to be a shift of students from the University to either state colleges or community colleges as our tuition has increased. Students and their families often overestimate the cost of higher education at the University. It is possible for a student of any means to successfully enroll here. Yet some families seem to be shifting to community colleges because of a misperception about the cost differences and lack of knowledge regarding the value of the four-year experience at a research university.

While community colleges provide an important alternative for some students, the shift of students who might otherwise attend a university is not in this state's best interest. We will continue to work hard at facilitating the transfer of these students to complete their degrees here, but we should not shrink from advocating the increased value students receive by spending four years at a major residential research university. We provide enhanced opportunities to engage in high quality classroom experiences and at the same time, to live in an environment that expands students' horizons and their opportunities. It is the vitality of the intellectual life here, the interaction students have with each other and with a wide variety of diverse individuals, the opportunities to acquire and exercise leadership skills, the judgment and self-reliance they acquire by being away from home that allows them to mature into higher functioning adults. We must be more aggressive in promoting the fact that it's the quality of the educational experience, not the speed or cost of the degree that leads to individual success and is important for the future of this state.

Nebraska will see declining numbers of graduating high school seniors in the next two years. Moreover, we also see troubling signs that the percentage of high school students taking college preparatory courses is declining. Accordingly, we must work even harder to assure that every capable student in Nebraska realizes the importance of a college education, knows of the resources available for financing that education, and understands the unique advantages available at our university. I also believe we may have policies and procedures in place that are adversely impacting our enrollment efforts. Some of these may be justified on academic grounds. We certainly should not relax our requirements or the rigor of our program. However, there may be others where the benefits are small compared to the burdens they impose on recruiting students. I have asked the Enrollment Management Council to consider this matter and to give me their recommendations within the next month. I will need your help in evaluating their suggestions and implementing change. I will also ask that academic programs address recruitment and enrollment issues in their strategic plans.


Teaching and Learning

Undergraduate education is one of our highest priorities and I believe we perform that exceedingly well. We are nationally known for our innovative methods, our commitment to general education, and our activities that engage students outside the classroom. We have faculty on this campus who are passionate about teaching and student learning and who engage regularly with others to spread their knowledge and expertise. We play a leadership role in the peer review of teaching and hosted a major national conference on the subject. However, since I was forced to eliminate our Teaching and Learning Center, many of us have struggled to find ways to support the educational enterprise. Several faculty have joined me in informal discussions about teaching, and Academic Affairs held a major workshop last spring on teaching improvement. Professor David Wilson agreed to assume a part-time role in Academic Affairs to coordinate teaching and learning activities. We continued to experience ferment on important areas of our undergraduate program. The Academic Senate took a leadership role in reviewing the general education requirements and while the debate was healthy, it remains unclear whether we have achieved a consensus for action. And in a far-reaching report, the Transitions to the University Task Force issued some intriguing recommendations. Among them: modifications to the first year curriculum in all disciplines; a review of the purpose of the comprehensive education program; changes in New Student Enrollment, orientation, and advising; and new forms of faculty support.

One recommendation of the Task Force is that every person of faculty rank, including administrators and research faculty, be engaged with undergraduate students in some formal classroom setting. I am sufficiently sympathetic to that recommendation that I have agreed to teach a five-session course on intellectual property to students in the J.D. Edwards program. I am hopeful that others administrators and faculty who currently do not have contact with undergraduates, particularly first-year students, find ways through their departments to share their knowledge and experience with them. Last year I questioned whether we needed to shift our attention from teaching to student learning. I am now convinced that for us to make substantial progress, we must insist that student learning outcomes be the measure for the success of any effort to enhance the undergraduate experience. Great teaching does not depend on how good students feel about the experience but on how much they learn. The shift to student learning poses many questions. Can we change the structure of higher education so it measures students' progress by their learning achievements rather than by how long they sit in a classroom? Is our curriculum structured and coordinated in such a way that facilitates interdisciplinary thinking? Can we allocate the valuable time of faculty toward those students who might benefit the most from faculty attention? Can we more fully exploit technology to enhance student learning at less cost? How will we respond to the growing pressure for giving dual credit for high school courses or for accepting credits from other institutions of varying overall quality? The answers to all of these questions are much easier if we focus on learning outcomes. I am pleased then to announce a new initiative directed at teaching and learning that can address a variety of issues associated with undergraduate teaching, with student learning as the metric for success. The University of Nebraska Foundation Grants Committee has provided me a grant of $427,000 to be used, at my discretion, toward undergraduate education. In addition the Foundation conducts a year-end effort to secure expendable funds for the Chancellor's Excellence Fund and I will allocate this year's gifts to that purpose. I am hopeful that will add at least another $200,000 to this initiative. These funds will be available to the Senior Vice Chancellor and the Dean of Undergraduate Studies for projects related to selective implementation of the recommendations of the Transitions Task Force report or for such other activities relating to undergraduate education. An announcement will be forthcoming soon with clearer details on the programs we are prepared to support. I have also asked the Foundation to solicit private funds to create one or more endowed professorships to recruit faculty, within any discipline, whose work is directed toward the advancement of the scholarship of teaching and learning. My hope is that like the Othmer research professorships, these individuals, when combined with the talents of our own faculty, will promote broader activities and reforms. We will also look for ways to enhance the recognition of resident faculty who distinguish themselves in advancing the scholarship of teaching by developing ways to enhance student learning.

Of course none of these investments will bear fruit without a strong commitment by the faculty to help us bring more rigor, more direction, and more effectiveness to our teaching program. Moreover, I acknowledge that student learning takes place in many different situations, from the laboratories to the dining halls to the spontaneous encounters students have with University resources or with each other. All of us at the university have an opportunity and a responsibility to help make sure students are better when they leave than when they enter. We hope to support these efforts wherever we find them. Strategic plans, particularly those of academic programs, will need to specifically address the issue of assessment of student learning which will play a significant role in our upcoming accreditation.


Fiscal Challenges

The fiscal affairs of Nebraska appear to be improving and we remain hopeful that the Governor and the Legislature will recognize the important role this University plays in making Nebraska competitive in today's economy. For this campus, there remain some challenges that we must address. We are still in the process of digesting the 12 percent reduction in our budget. We must continue to assess the consequences of the reductions we made and determine if some reconstruction is desirable. Just prior to the economic downturn we had made real progress in moving our salaries near the average of our peer group. Although many of our peers faced similar fiscal difficulties, the evidence suggests we have slipped modestly relative to these institutions. We cannot let that slippage continue if we are to continue to recruit and retain a quality faculty and staff.

Another major challenge is the need for additional physical facilities, particularly for research. The Beadle Center is above its full capacity and many of our other research buildings need upgrading or expansion. The lack of physical space has caused us to forego some research opportunities and is putting restraints on us in many ways. I am hopeful that the State will soon be in a position to help us in this regard but, if not, we have no choice but to find creative ways to find additional space. We also must engage in careful space planning, as part of our strategic plans, to assure that this scarce resource is used in the most productive way. Funding additional physical facilities must be one of our top priorities. While we have improved our competitive standing in research, our surrounding states, even during the downturn, made significant investments in university facilities as part of their ongoing economic development programs. For Nebraska, as a state, to remain competitive with its neighboring states so that Nebraskans can participate in the knowledge-based economy, the state will need to make additional investments in the University.


Collaboration

Our research success has proven that collaboration and interdisciplinary efforts are essential to compete for major grants, not only in the sciences but also in the social sciences and humanities. Enhanced interdisciplinary work is important for both teaching and research. I'm told that 40 percent of the faculty at the University of Michigan are on joint appointments. I am not yet convinced that we have the right policies and procedures to facilitate interdisciplinary work. Joint appointments are still awkward, and interdepartmental cooperation is sometimes burdened with concerns about how we count student credit hours, indirect costs, or other benefits. The Senior Vice Chancellor has agreed to establish a task force of faculty members to examine this matter along with best practices from other universities and to provide us with a set of recommendations for action.


Outreach

The people of Nebraska expect and deserve our best efforts in using our talents and expertise to advance their prosperity and the quality of their lives. There are examples of our successes throughout Nebraska. Last year cooperative extension faculty and staff reached nearly 120,000 Nebraska youth, allowing UNL 4-H to lead the nation in per capita 4-H enrollment. We have a new chicory industry in the Panhandle attributable primarily to the work of Cooperative Extension, and Extension is also responsible for a revitalized viticulture industry centered in Southeast Nebraska where grapes and wine used to be significant economic drivers. Indeed, I would urge you to tour one or more of the 13 wineries now operating in Nebraska. We also serve Nebraska through an expanding distance education program and we are on our way to creating financial incentives for those faculty and departments who work creatively in this area. In a variety of other ways, through programs from the arts to the sciences, this University serves the people of Nebraska.

We currently have major efforts under way with the rural revitalization initiative and the emphasis on water research. These two projects must receive increased attention if we are to make a difference on these important issues. We also must continue in our efforts to find commercial applications for the products of our research. This does not mean that faculty should be directing their research toward particular commercial ends. We do not, and will not know, where much of our research will lead. Albert Einstein once said: “If we knew what we were doing, we wouldn't call it research.” Nonetheless we must remain conscious of the commercial possibilities once the thrust of our research is known.


Communications

Finally we must continue to coordinate our communications efforts so that our achievements are better recognized. The academic side of the university is speaking with an increasingly louder and consistent voice designed to promote not only the institution but also the individual programs and departments. I invite all departments and programs to increase their interactions with Meg Lauerman and her staff so that we can receive proper attention for the extraordinary talent and accomplishments that this community represents.