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State of the University Address, 2009

SEPTEMBER 10, 2008

Harvey Perlman, Chancellor

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

There is a common understanding of the importance of life sciences for the university, for the state of Nebraska, and for the world. Global food security, in which Nebraska can play an important role, is emerging as one of the critical issues of the 21st Century. We have opportunities to enhance the full range of the life sciences, including areas that impact environmental sustainability and human health, and we would fail in our responsibilities if we were not a world-class resource for ideas and talent needed for the future of food production. While we have made progress over the last few years, I believe we must now reach for a new level of coordination and collaboration among our faculty which is necessary to reach our 2020 Vision.

In constructing a strategy I consulted with senior university leadership, a cross-section of life science faculty, and a committee of external friends of the University. One of those friends was Senator Ron Raikes who tragically died in a farm accident last weekend. Ron was passionate about the importance of the role of modern science for the future of agriculture and was highly engaged in our discussion. We lost not only a friend but an opportunity to draw on his wisdom and experience. We will all be poorer as a result.

Any proposal for change inevitably causes suspicion and concern. My past description of the interrelationship of the three missions of the university may have shortchanged, in its rhetoric, the importance of our extension and outreach activities. I have often reiterated that the University's two highest priorities are undergraduate education and research. This might appear to leave out faculty whose primary mission is in cooperative extension and the constituents who depend on their services. Yet I am completely committed to the role of a land-grant university to extend our teaching and research to the citizens of Nebraska. Serving the people in Nebraska through our teaching and research and focusing our teaching and our research to respond to the challenges facing our state benefactors is our highest calling. Those faculty and staff who directly engage with the people of Nebraska on their farms, at their businesses, and in their homes are critically important to our success. No change that we might propose for the life sciences should detract from our extension and outreach mission. No benefit that may result from our innovations will be complete if we cannot translate them into contributions that better the lives of those we serve.

Before I describe my proposals for the life sciences, let me emphasize what I do not propose. I do not propose altering the basic organizational structure of the university. The roles of the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Engineering, and the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources -- our primary life science units -- or the academic units contained in each, will not be diminished in any way. The unique strength of the College of Arts and Sciences is to insure that the rigorous logic of scientific exploration is tempered by the realities of the human condition. The unique role of the College of Engineering is to move innovations into operation. The unique strength of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources is to assure that agriculture will be accorded a strong priority in our efforts. The proposals I will make are designed to benefit all of the life sciences and will permit us to marshal the full range of talent that will be necessary to serve our students, our clientele, and the world at large. This is particularly important for the Institute as it works to create and translate the science that will determine the future success of agricultural production.

I propose the following initiatives to help us enhance and energize our life science programs. They all address the need to bring a higher degree of collaboration, consultation, and coordination among those in the life science community.

  1. I propose we create a Faculty of the Life Sciences in order to fashion a more coordinated faculty perspective to the life sciences. This proposal would have no impact on a faculty member's status within the disciplinary based departments but would serve as a forum for conversations across discipline lines - to share research interests, to learn about new life science faculty and the work of those recently tenured and promoted, to facilitate mutual assistance in recruiting life science faculty, to provide more active collaborations for speakers and colloquia, and to promote ideas for research or hiring initiatives that could draw on the resources of more than one discipline -- in essence, to draw on the expertise and engagement of the faculty who want to participate to move the life science efforts of the university forward.
  2. I propose a new effort to establish a core life science curriculum with a process modeled after the one that developed our new general education program - one that identifies the learning outcomes expected of every life science major and constructs an assessment mechanism to measure our success. Senior Vice Chancellor Couture and Vice Chancellor Owens have already begun this initiative, which will fully involve faculty who are invested in its success.
  3. I propose we develop a system of faculty evaluation for promotion and tenure that will be more uniform across our campuses. Both of the Vice Chancellors are also working to make this a reality.
  4. I propose a process to identify, inventory, and designate core facilities and instrumentation for life science research. Core facilities are efficient, are designed to enhance collaboration, and will be one of the key amenities available to private sector companies thinking about locating on Innovation Campus.
  5. I propose to establish a more comprehensive process for identifying and evaluating potential areas of excellence for the life science, with particular, but not exclusive, attention to their impact on agriculture. I realize that in science, the ultimate application of basic research is uncertain, which is why we need a comprehensive life science research program. We have some established areas of excellence, such as the Center for Plant Science Innovation, the Nebraska Virology Center, and the Redox Biology Center. We have emerging areas in renewable energy, in gut science, and in nutraceuticals. We are pursuing new initiatives that could have a global impact in food science and in the use of water for food production. We should reevaluate our efforts in public policy as it impacts agriculture. The farmers and ranchers I talk to worry as much about farm policy as farm economics. With two departments of economics, a law school, a business school, a public policy center, and the diverse resources within the Institute, we may already have considerable strength if it can be coordinated into a major initiative.
  6. I propose the establishment of a procedure to bring more coordination to the hiring of life science faculty. With the interdisciplinary nature of modern life science research, we run the risk of multiple departments hiring the same expertise while important gaps in expertise remain unfilled.

I have provided more detail for each of these proposals in a white paper for your review. Let me emphasize these are proposals, not decrees. While I have tried to consult with many who have special expertise and experience, I invite the comments of others. My sole objective in any of these is to position the university to enhance our activities in the life sciences. While these steps may not be the perfect solution for the perfect world, I hope they will be received as a reasonable way to begin, with the understanding that working out the devilish details will be the hard work that lies ahead.