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State of the University Address, 2009

SEPTEMBER 10, 2008

Harvey Perlman, Chancellor

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Many of you know that President Milliken conducted my 5-year performance review by asking a consultant to interview a broad group of individuals with whom I interact, both within and outside the university, including faculty and students. I have received a report of what was said in those interviews (relax, no comment was attributed to an individual). While there were positive comments, one has a tendency to remember the comments that were otherwise. Here are the ones I am particularly fond of:

  • His staff would follow him anywhere - but only out of morbid curiosity.
  • He works well when under constant supervision and cornered like a rat.
  • He doesn't have ulcers, but he's a carrier.
  • He would argue with a signpost.
  • He brings a lot of joy whenever he leaves a room.
  • If you see two people talking and one looks bored - he's the other one.
  • A photographic memory with the lens cover glued on.
  • Some drink from the fountain of knowledge; he only gargled.

With these comments in mind I vowed to do better. So I went to Barnes and Noble and asked the clerk for the self-help section. She said: "If I told you it would defeat the purpose." Seriously, there were comments expressed in the review that I was not taking full advantage of the knowledge and creativity of the faculty in pursuing the university agenda. I take this concern seriously, and I will outline today some proposals for further engaging faculty and others in plotting our future course.

In 2000 this university coalesced around a report titled "A 2020 Vision: The Future of Research and Graduate Education." Other reports built upon that vision by focusing on undergraduate education, within the context of a public land-grant university. The 2020 report concluded that the university had not achieved its full potential and that our aspiration should include becoming "one of the nation's great public research universities by the time we celebrate our sesquicentennial anniversary in 2019." We are now half way to 2020.

One thing is clear -- we have made progress by any measurable criteria and by our own perception of ourselves. We have increased enrollment while also increasing the academic credentials, the graduation rates, the retention rates, and the geographic and racial diversity of our students. We adopted a 21st Century, nationally acclaimed general education program. Similarly, our research funding continues to set records, our faculty appear increasingly in top- tier journals, and the stature of our arts and humanities has never been higher. We are known in places around the world. We should be proud, but not satisfied, with our progress.

We should be thankful that the financial challenges we face pale in comparison to many of our peers. Yet, we face our own uncertainties about funding, uncertainties that are not within our power to control. While I remain grateful for the support we have received from Nebraska and optimistic that the Legislature and Governor will do the best they can on our behalf, the economic downturn in the country at large seems more than transitory, and preexisting structural issues within Nebraska narrow the possibility for significantly enhanced revenues. Our success thus far has been because we have been willing to focus on the things we can control. We have not, and should not, allow budget uncertainties to turn off the light at the end of the 2020 tunnel. Against the background of uncertain funding from our traditional sources, the question thus presented is how do we best position the university to increase our prospects for continued progress toward our 2020 Vision.

I am proposing two initiatives that seek to draw on the creative talent of this faculty and others to explore whether there are opportunities we have not yet exploited. First, we must carefully examine the traditional ways in which we have performed our missions in search of alternative methods, structures, or policies that will permit us to continue to make progress with the resources we command. I propose to appoint a Task Force to explore innovative options for the university community to consider.

I want this Task Force to focus on how we conduct our core missions of teaching, research, and outreach. Are there sensible alternatives available to us in how we teach, how we structure and organize research, and how we serve Nebraska that can result in greater benefits than the costs they incur? Continued prioritization has to be a part of the equation. But, are there structural or management changes that could also produce overall benefits to the university? Are there new processes or policies that could create additional incentives to reduce costs, both to the university and to the Nebraskans we serve?

Some universities have moved to responsibility- or performance-based budgeting models that generate incentives for each unit to seek savings in existing programs that can then be used to elevate other activities. I assure you I am aware that some of these models have produced significant negative unintended consequences and yet others appear to have been useful. Are there resources now deployed in multiple units that might be better coordinated? What is the best overall allocation of faculty positions between tenure track appointments, professors of practice, adjuncts and instructors, graduate teaching assistants? How might new technology be enlisted to reduce costs? Is the traditional four-year path to graduation, which has now become for many the 5- or 6-year path to graduation, the right model for all students or for the resources we have available? Are cooperative extension and our other outreach activities positioned to best serve Nebraskans and do they adequately engage the resources of the entire university? In short, are there ways we might do things differently to make us more nimble, more ready to meet the challenges of the future while making the best use of our current resources?

These are some, but certainly not all, of the questions I hope a task force might address. Like the task force that drafted the original 2020 Vision, I hope to engage students, alumni, constituents, and parents, as well as faculty, in pursuing this task. I would propose to name this task force: Pursuing a 2020 Vision: the Task Force on Academic Efficiency. The second initiative involves the need to explore ways to increase revenue. This is largely a strange world for many of us. Throughout the university we are teaching students the elements of entrepreneurship - of taking risks in order to provide a new product or service to the public at large. I propose that we examine whether there are ways we can, as a university, become more entrepreneurial.

There are many examples across the university of entrepreneurial activity. Our primary products are education, research, and outreach. Some departments have developed distance education programs that bring in revenue. The university system is developing both the incentives and the infrastructure that should make this a fertile area for development and we intend to work hard at exploiting this new opportunity. In research we have worked hard to restructure our technology transfer office to position us to be of better service to faculty whose inventions have market value. A few academic units have looked at whether some initial investments in faculty could produce more revenue through additional enrollment. Do we have revenue opportunities internationally? Are we properly charging for the services we provide? While we need to be true to our academic values and to our position as a state-supported university that should largely avoid competition with the private sector, we would also be remiss if we didn't take a hard look at how we might generate additional revenue. This could be important to us fulfilling our larger ambitions.

Accordingly, I am proposing a second task force to consider whether there are actions we could take to enhance revenue other than through tuition increases, either by ourselves or in collaboration with others. Again, this task force should be comprised of both university and external community members and should tap the energy and creativity of our faculty and staff. I would propose to name this task force: Pursuing the 2020 Vision: The Task Force on Academic Entrepreneurship.

My hope is that these task forces outline a series of alternatives that would serve our purposes, even if they have concerns about their viability or acceptability. We need a menu of options to consider. The task forces can then make their recommendations of which alternatives from the menu we should pursue. I intend to provide the task forces with administrative support and to tap some national resources to discover what other universities are doing or considering in these areas.

I remain an optimist about our future and our ability to achieve our 2020 Vision. At the same time I do not think it a wise course to have our future depend entirely on forces beyond our control. I know of no single step that would be more important than if we could find ways to do more with what we have and to earn more from what we do.