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State of the University Address, 2008

SEPTEMBER 4, 2008

Harvey Perlman, Chancellor

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Looking Forward

So what should be our agenda and our attitude as we face the future? In reading Jean Edward Smith's new biography of Franklin Roosevelt I was struck by a phrase FDR used when he accepted his party's nomination for president in 1932. He suggested that to make progress, it was necessary to overcome those who "squint at the future with their faces pointed at the past." I believe the university faces both challenges, and more importantly, a set of unlimited opportunities. To make further progress we must firmly point our faces and our vision toward the future. This is no time to squint, no time to look back, no time to be content with the nostalgia of what we had or to be paralyzed by the fear of what we might become.

Enhancing our Academic Momentum

A few years ago, this university, discontented with its status, set about formulating a vision for its future and a blueprint for its achievement. The 2020 Report, a candid portrait of a university falling far short of its potential, was confirmed by a series of articles in the Omaha World Herald. These studies caused us to relax our squint, widened our gaze, and in the last several years we have taken our rightful place among this country's great public universities.

Notwithstanding a period of fiscal turmoil, we worked on those things we could control and were not discouraged by those things we could not. We focused on our priorities. In openly celebrating success, we experienced more success. We increased both our enrollment and the academic credentials of our entering class to the highest standard in history. We are ranked as the country's "most popular public university" - no longer a place to which students come if they can't get into their first or second choice. Our research has more than doubled and with it our visibility has increased in almost every federal agency and in the private sector. We have addressed issues of national and international significance, as well as problems that are central to the future of Nebraska. And we have engaged with the people of Nebraska, through the efforts of cooperative extension and across the breadth of our academic enterprise, to help them address their economic security and quality of life. We have built pride among Nebraskans in the academic stature of their university, we have achieved the confidence of state government as evidenced by its support for an Innovation Campus at State Fair Park. And we have raised expectations for our future performance. Our challenge now is to continue to build on our success and to meet the expectations we have created. I invite all of you to join me in my morning routine: I wake up, exercise, eat breakfast and read the local newspapers. Then I go on-line and look at university rankings. If we are not number 1, I get dressed and come to work.

In research, while our institutional accomplishments have continued to set records, the contributions to this success have not been evenly distributed across the departments and colleges of the university. Some units have met or exceeded any reasonable expectations we might have for research while others have not lived up to their potential. In making this assessment I acknowledge that not all disciplines have the same access to research funding and in some disciplines productivity must be measured by means other than competitive grants. In a few units, there has been a conscious choice to focus on teaching or extension and we should respect those decisions if, in larger terms, these units make significant contributions to the missions of the university. Not every academic unit started out with the same comparative level of funding and the budget cuts we endured had uneven effects on some areas. So, in making assessments, we should not be searching for fault but rather we should be seeking constructive ways to move the university to the next level by assuring more faculty and units are positioned to contribute to our success.

I am proposing that we engage in two strategies that over time will help us spread success over more of the university. The first strategy should be to seek from our colleagues at peer institutions a candid assessment of our current status. In many instances, our academic program reviews have provided valuable information. Appropriately, they are focused on an assessment of achievement in our departments and disciplines. Recently, we have included in these program reviews questions not only about how departments are forwarding their disciplines, but also about how they meet our strategic priorities and how they contribute to interdisciplinary research. But these important comprehensive evaluations may not provide the information we need to develop metrics for future success. Thus I propose that we consider in some cases employing specialized reviews, by both internal and external peers, that are focused on helping us develop metrics for success in interdisciplinary areas. We have done this successfully to refine directions in interdisciplinary research in the Plant Sciences, and more recently in establishing a new direction for the Peter Kiewit Institute. I and our senior leadership welcome suggestions for other such reviews and we will be proposing some of our own. We need to use these processes to help us determine where additional investments are required or appropriate.

The second strategy will be to implement a more transparent assessment of all of our academic programs. I have, up to now, resisted setting specific metrics for individual departments or for the university as a whole. At the outset of our efforts, I think none of us was comfortable knowing what expectations were appropriate. Similarly, we did not have a strategic planning process that could take account of any established goals nor frankly did we have an institutional information system that could reliably assess our progress. That has changed.

I propose that we work with each academic unit to develop a set of metrics relating to enrollment and research that is realistic, and based on peer data where possible. We have a great start toward this effort. Thanks to the work of Institutional Research and Academic Affairs, we now have available to every department enrollment data profiles over time that can help them set objectives for future enrollment; and, too, we have valuable reports from the Modeling Enrollment Management committee, co-chaired by Vice Chancellors Couture, Franco and Owens, that can help departments develop metrics for success. Similarly, our Office of Research and Economic Development is introducing this year a data set that will help colleges and departments chart their progress toward increasing research capacity.

Thanks to the hard work of the deans, we have a strategic planning process that can identify and focus on priorities. Thanks to the campus involvement we will shortly release the final copy of a strategic compass that makes transparent the vision, priorities, and the strategies the campus administration will employ. Now is the time to use these processes to set specific benchmarks and strategies for achieving them. Let me now address some specific issues of importance as we enter a new academic year.

Life Sciences

Any objective observer would conclude that this university must excel in the life sciences. The Nebraska economy is built on feeding the world, and now, more than ever, fueling its activities. To preserve our future we must have strength not only for the improvement of current practices but also in advancing the future through cellular biology and genomic research. The university has traditionally made significant investments in the life sciences through the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the School of Biological Sciences, and the numerous other disciplines that are part of, or impact, life science instruction and research. Chemistry, biochemistry, physics, engineering, remote sensing, computer science, all have a significant role to play in this field.

We have had numerous initiatives focused on the life sciences and we have made significant progress. Yet, I believe we have considerable work yet to do. The laboratories in which we teach most of our life science and basic chemistry courses require considerable upgrading. The most serious restraint to increasing life science research is finding appropriate laboratory space. Just last week we dedicated the new Ken Morrison Life Sciences Research Center for our virology program. Yet it is already near capacity as are the laboratories vacated by the virologists who moved to the facility. We also have lost a number of faculty positions directed toward transformative research, in large part because of budgetary restraints. And I continue to believe that more integration and collaboration among academic units working in life science-related fields would allow us to make greater progress. We must set higher standards and make achieving them a matter of high priority.

Because of your efforts to enhance enrollment, we have some additional resources to help us advance our priorities. Last year I was able to authorize new faculty positions specifically addressed to the demands that increased enrollment has had on our teaching resources. This year, I intend a new initiative to fund additional faculty on a competitive basis, with the primary consideration being their potential to advance our sponsored research efforts. The emphasis will be faculty who can contribute to interdisciplinary efforts to make us more competitive, with particular attention to work relating to the life sciences.

Increasingly it is interdisciplinary efforts that produce both competitive funding success, and more importantly, insight into the problems research is intended to solve. While we have made some progress with interdisciplinary centers, we have much more work to do. For 10 years NSF has funded an interdisciplinary Graduate Education and Research Program (IGERT) but we have not been successful in obtaining funds. Last year Vice Chancellor Paul and I funded an interdisciplinary graduate student recruitment program with university funds on the hope of further breaking down barriers. The new initiative on interdisciplinary faculty is part of that effort. I acknowledge that in many areas of the university, deans and chairs and heads have worked hard to cooperate to make interdisciplinary efforts successful. I acknowledge also that these efforts test our traditional organization and governance models. But to remain competitive we must continue to push in this direction.