2020 State of Our University

Ronnie D. Green

20th Chancellor of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

February 14, 2020

Thank you for that kind and gracious introduction, President Carter – and thanks for being here this morning. We are so pleased that you are now a Nebraskan and for what promises to be your unparalleled leadership as the 8th president of the NU system. I have described you as a “leader’s leader” and I know we are going to have a lot of fun working together in the years ahead.

Wow, what a year we had in 2019! The past 12 months have been nothing short of breath-taking and awe-inspiring.

The video captured our wonderful N150 celebration of Nebraska’s flagship, Land-grant university. A celebration of those who walked our hallowed halls before us, who made this university all it is today, on whose shoulders and minds we stand. One might even say a celebration of 15 decades of our true grit and glory – with profound and lasting impact on Nebraska and the world.

It was a year where we both celebrated and renewed the commitment of our university’s tri-fold Land-grant mission of access to highest quality education for the 21st century, research and innovation that is changing the world, and engagement with the full citizenry of Nebraska.

And now, here we are today with a scarlet and cream birthday cake with 151 candles, at the inflection point of a new decade – doubled-down on our mission as never before.

We’re at historical highs for providing access to exceptional higher education for Nebraskans. Our fall enrollment of 25,390 represents the sixth consecutive year of enrollment above 25,000.

Not only is our enrollment strong in numbers, our freshman class is the most ethnically diverse ever and has the highest average ACT in UNL history. And, we continued to increase the number of students from states outside Nebraska and the number of Nebraskans in our freshman class, with our student scholars now hailing from 92 counties in Nebraska, every state and territory in the US, and 131 countries around the world.

I am especially proud that nearly 25% of our first-time students are first-generation students. I know firsthand how challenging it can be as the first in one’s family to pursue a baccalaureate degree. We have initiated several programs to help give our first-generation students the tools for success, including First Huskers and First-Generation Nebraska, with recent national recognition in the inaugural cohort of First Forward Institutions.

Our commitment to student success is evident in our record graduation numbers. In the 2018-19 academic year we awarded degrees to 5,868 new Husker alumni, the highest number ever, bringing our total number of graduates to 295,753 with more than 200,000 Husker alumni now living around the world.

I am very pleased that UNL is part of the ambitious APLU “Powered by Publics” project, involving 130 public universities who have pledged to work together in 16 “clusters” to boost student access and graduation rates. We have committed as a part of the Big Ten cluster to reducing UNL’s equity graduation rate gap for under-represented minority students from 50 percent by 2025, while continuing to increase access.

Part of the secret of our success is that at UNL, we believe in the power of every person. We know that when our University faculty and staff engage in strategic efforts to work one-on-one with students who show signs of struggling, these students are able to stretch their strengths and find success.

In 2019, we began a program called Big Red Resilience and Well-Being, including the extensive use of peer mentors. This program helps our students develop a skill set of behaviors, thoughts and actions to manage change, hardship and disappointment. Persisting and growing through adversity enhances flexibility, overall functioning and well-being.

We not only provide a tremendous high-value Big Ten education, due to our commitment to keeping tuition and fees as low as possible, our students also graduate with one-third less student debt than the national average.

We send them out into the workforce to do big things. A few of you may have watched the Super Bowl this year. But did you know a recent UNL graduate was part of the action? Ben Buchnat, a journalism and broadcasting major took the skills he learned with HuskerVision and the College of Journalism and Mass Communications to the big game as a seasonal producer for the Kansas City Chiefs. He is but one example of thousands of our graduates who go on to incredibly successful careers.

We are also setting new heights in the quantity and quality of our collective research and creative activity. We continued our record-breaking progress with $317M in research expenditures. This represents a 26% growth over the past decade. Our total sponsored research awards grew 14% over the prior year with a 21% increase over prior year in federal research awards.

This is phenomenal momentum. Our work has the power to transform lives, and the achievements of our faculty in that pursuit are drawing attention across the country and the world in areas that matter to Nebraska. In 2019, we placed enhanced emphasis on nationally telling the stories of a variety of leading-edge research areas like drone application in multiple fields, digital humanities, virology, national defense and feeding a hungry world sustainably under a changing climate.

The last two years in a row, the University of Nebraska system ranked among the top 100 academic institutions worldwide in earning U.S. patents – with 31 during 2018 (22 from UNL). In 2019, this further escalated, with Husker researchers as named inventors on 35 patents.

And while I do not have time this morning to name them all individually, as you can see on the screen, 2019 was a record year for highest level international and national awards and honors for research, scholarship, and creative activity across our world-leading faculty and staff — as well as the local recognition our faculty received sweeping across the board in all categories in 2019 within the University of Nebraska system awards.

We also continue to lead nationally in our land-grant university mission of outreach to the citizenry of Nebraska. Nebraska Extension is deeply engaged in all 93 counties of our state. We never saw this more clearly than when the devastating combination of blizzards and floods hit our state last year. As we have always been, our university was there to provide assistance to the people of Nebraska.

And to understand our impact and reach across our state, I want you to grasp this statistic. Nebraska 4-H, as a part of Nebraska Extension, currently reaches half of age-eligible youth in 77 percent of Nebraska counties. Again – in three-fourths of the counties across the state, 50 percent of the youth ages 9 to 18 are involved with 4-H. Just think what that means for our engagement with the young people of Nebraska.

I know you will hear more highlights of how we engage with the broader community from each of our deans today, because engagement and outreach is happening and growing in powerful ways in every corner of UNL.

We are “Fundamental” to the future of Nebraska, and the world.

It’s somewhat ironic that in an age where some question the value of higher education, our value has never been more important.

In the face of challenges, our university creates opportunity - with the power to transform lives across Nebraska and around the world. We deliver an outstanding education that provides students with a lifetime of economic mobility. And we conduct cutting-edge research that saves lives, grows our economy, and improves our quality of life.

We are educating the future workforce, particularly for the state of Nebraska – in education; business; engineering; agriculture, life sciences and the environment; health care; government; law; media and communication; the sciences, the arts and humanities; and architecture and the built environment.

We are investing in and significantly expanding programs that will produce the skilled workers to power tomorrow’s economy. For example, more than 4000 of our current students are engaged in fields of study related to high-technology and STEM fields.

We are aligned in an effort to grow and retain tech talent with the Nebraska Tech Collaborative through the Omaha and Lincoln Chambers of Commerce and AKSARBEN. With support from the private sector, we announced plans to build Kiewit Hall as part of our College of Engineering facilities and enrollment expansion to 5,000 students. I want to particularly thank Governor Ricketts for his support for funding new “H-3” scholarships.

A big part of our Engineering investment is now underway in the development of a new School of Computing, facilitated with $2.5M additional annual investment in faculty and programs in computer science and engineering within the College. We expect by 2025 to more than double graduates in computer science, software engineering and computer engineering prepared to enter into Nebraska’s growing digital and information technology sector.

It's not enough to think about preparing our students for specific jobs. For many of our students, the jobs they will hold throughout their careers haven’t even been imagined yet. We need our students to immediately engage with flexible, nimble and strong minds – prepared for any challenge or new opportunity that may come their way.

I know you will hear from Dean O’Connor about the launch this past fall of our new Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts which is a perfect example. Carson Center students will literally imagine the future and be its leaders.

Speaking of leaders, as we look across our university in 2020, we are blessed to be “Poised and Positioned with one of the strongest set of professionals in higher education.”

We’ve had a number of outstanding new faculty join us this year, and I’m excited they are in our classrooms, labs, studios, and fields.

We have also welcomed dynamic new leaders in the past year. Dr. Marco Barker has hit the campus running as our first Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion. He is helping us challenge our own perceptions and thinking, and is building a climate that is truly welcoming to and supportive of all.

Deans Mark Button, Sherri Jones and Claire Stewart are already making an impact, and you’ll be hearing more from them later.

I am pleased that Dr. Shari Veil, incoming dean for the College of Journalism and Mass Communication, will join us on July 1 once she concludes her duties at the University of Kentucky.

And I would like to have you join me in thanking Amy Struthers for her service as the interim dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications the past two years and Anna Shavers for her service as Acting Dean of Nebraska Law since June.

There aren’t enough words to thank Richard Moberly for temporarily setting aside his beloved role as Dean of Nebraska Law to take on the role of Interim Executive Vice Chancellor these past 9 months. I will certainly miss his daily wise counsel, insight, humor and leadership – but I know he is eager to return to Nebraska Law and his colleagues are just as eager to have him back. I know where to find you, friend.

I am overjoyed to introduce Dr. Elizabeth Spiller, our incoming Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. I can hardly wait to have Elizabeth here to lead our academic enterprise. She’s coming to us from UC-Davis, where she is wrapping up her leadership as the Dean of the College of Letters and Science. Elizabeth – welcome, we look forward to having you here officially in March. Thank you for making the special effort to be with us today – I eagerly look forward to your driver’s license and voter registration joining President Carter’s reflecting your new designation as a “Nebraskan.”

I feel incredibly fortunate to work with what I consider to be one of most talented leadership teams in all of higher education. You will hear from the deans of the colleges here in a moment – but I would also like to have our vice chancellors and all members of the University cabinet please stand so that we may thank you all for your tremendous leadership.

An incredibly important part of what makes UNL special is the strong role of shared governance – and the hand that faculty have in leading our institution. Over the past year, the Faculty Senate has been working with our leadership team to develop changes to our bylaws that will strengthen our policies and address gaps, particularly in cases where there is a need for involuntary leave of absence of professional staff. I want to thank all faculty and administrators who have worked so diligently on these efforts, particularly associate vice chancellor for academic affairs Judy Walker. We are continuing to work with the Faculty Senate, University of Nebraska system and the Board of Regents so that they may be adopted uniformly, and I am hopeful we will see the successful adoption of these revisions prior to the start of the next academic year this fall.

We are “Growing and Building.”

It’s not just the Sandhill cranes that will soon swarm Nebraska. Over the next three years – we are investing more than 500 million dollars into growing our campuses for our students, faculty, staff, and alumni. These projects serve as visual reminders of our commitment to ensuring our campus environment supports the highest levels of teaching and learning and research.

  • At the beginning of the academic year we opened the new $9M home of the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts and HLFPA Dance Studio.
  • Soon opening the $14M Francis Allen Gymnastics Training Facility addition to the Devaney Center.
  • $29M Nebraska East Union renovation to be completed this spring.
  • $22.5M renovation of the C.Y. Thompson Library in to the Dinsdale Student Learning Commons.
  • A completely new $46M Mabel Lee Hall soon to be underway for CEHS.
  • The $75.5M renovation and rebuild of the College of Engineering link and Scott Engineering Center is underway.
  • Memorial Mall Veterans Tribute to begin later this year.
  • Kiewit Hall, our $85M largest-ever corporate partnership and privately supported project, will begin in 2021 and be completed in 2023 as a new instructional facility for the College of Engineering.
  • Our $155M GOBIG new football and Husker Student Athlete Success Center will begin this fall.
  • And the new outdoor track and field facility being built just northwest of where we sit today, just approved by our Board of Regents last week.

And we are continually boosting economic development impact. Sitting here on our Nebraska Innovation Campus – I hope you noticed how much it continues to thrive and grow. The total NIC footprint is 455,000 sq ft and is now home to 50+ partners – a diverse mix of private-sector and university entities – and a total of 759 employees and student interns. This combination delivers a $324M annual economic impact and has added 1,657 Nebraska jobs.

  • Virtual Incision, founded by Shane Farritor announced earlier this month it raised $20 million in a new round of venture capital funding.
  • Adjuvance received a major contract from the National Institutes of Health to improve the flu vaccine and also received a $20 million venture capital investment.
  • Invest Nebraska and the Nebraska Department of Economic Development have teamed up to create the Combine Incubator that will have the capacity to build the pipeline of tech founders in agriculture, and
  • Next month will mark the groundbreaking of a new 153-room Marriott-affiliated hotel just across the street from where we sit this morning – when we will be revealing the exciting university-themed brand of this hotel.

As focused as we’ve been on continuously enhancing our research and creative activity capacity and impact, our institution was built on the premise of providing access. Inclusive excellence should be considered a core mindset we continually develop and enhance. Over the last year, there have been several initiatives to support this journey, including our first State of Diversity summit, along with several campuswide events and the recent launch of the Council on Inclusive Excellence and Diversity (CIED) – who will work to help advance the inclusive excellence agenda.

In 2020, we are “Rising.”

Our membership in the Big Ten Conference and the Big Ten Academic Alliance has been an incredible boost to our institution.

In a college-athletics landscape that is constantly changing, we are on solid ground in the best-positioned and most respected conference in America. Very few NCAA D1 university athletic programs in the country can boast as favorable a financial position as Nebraska. And the devotion of our Husker fans – who sell out Memorial Stadium, the Devaney Center and Pinnacle Bank Arena – are the envy of any university. This success makes it possible for Husker Athletics to provide $10 million in annual direct support to our academic mission, including the second year of $5 million of support for the Husker Scholars scholarship program impacting over 3,000 of our students and increasing access to non-student athletes scholars to study at Nebraska.

Our student-athletes continue to shine as scholars and representatives of what Huskers can achieve. Nebraska's Angela Mercurio was named the NCAA's 2019 Woman of the Year. She is only the second Husker to receive the honor. In January, former Husker All-American men's gymnast Anton Stephenson became Nebraska's nation-leading 18th NCAA Today's Top Ten Award recipient. It is very rare to have these two prestigious national honors both be within the Big Ten. I hope you all appreciate how extraordinary it was they were both from Nebraska.

I should say it’s not surprising, since academic success among our student athletes is who are we. Nebraska remains the national leader with a mind-boggling 338 Academic All-Americans.

As mentioned earlier, our faculty are rising in national prominence, receiving major accolades. I want to specifically highlight:

  • English Professor Kwame Dawes, who won the annual Windham-Campbell Prize for poetry, fiction, nonfiction or drama; has won an Emmy and was elected chancellor to the American Academy of Poets
  • History Professor Margaret Jacobs earned membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • Biomedical engineer Angela Pannier received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from the White House for her research on biomaterials and gene delivery systems.
  • Ed Cahoon, Tom Clemente, and Eileen Hebets all were named AAAS Fellows – where we now average 3 new fellows per year compared to 1 per year prior to the BIG10.

Since entering the Big Ten Academic Alliance eight years ago, we have seen consistent increases in our national rankings for our Colleges of Business, Education and Human Sciences, Law and Engineering. Our Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources programs continue to be ranked amongst the top 50 globally, and 19 of our graduate programs rank in the top 25% nationally including English, History, Physics, Sociology, Accountancy, Special Education and Communication Disorders, Educational Psychology and Agronomy and Horticulture.

The University of Nebraska Foundation has been a key partner in helping our university rise. The support of private donors helps to propel our student success, research and infrastructure investment – and we cannot begin to thank them enough.

While we rise, we are “Evolving.” We are taking steps to enhance our budget management and our stewardship of our resources.

I face you today in a much different position with respect to our budget than I have in years past. Fortunately, this is the first in my tenure where we are NOT looking to manage budget cuts, with an improved state budget picture. We have much greater stability and the overall climate around the discussion of our budget has improved. Thank you to everyone who has helped to put us on this enhanced and more positive footing, I know it has not been easy the past three years.

Over the past two years, we have begun the journey of moving to an incentive-based budget model. As I said to you last year, this remains the most important short-term priority we have as an institution. If we want to enable and empower the kind of growth and strategic development that we aim for – we must have a budget model that incentivizes growth and strategic investment.

We have come a long way on this journey, and I want to thank everyone who has put so much time and effort to getting us to this point, particularly Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance, Bill Nunez, and Dean of the College of Business, Kathy Farrell, who have ably co-chaired the steering committee for this effort.

Today, we have largely defined our new UNL budget model. A great deal of work has gone into that, and into working with the Deans and Vice Chancellors to socialize it and begin to understand how it will change our thinking and planning.

We’ve used the term “shadow year” to describe our current fiscal year, and perhaps that was confusing to some. There is no magic switch that will happen on July 1 of this year when we move into the new fiscal year, nor is there a “fiscal cliff” that will imperil any unit’s future. What really kicks off in next year is a new robustness in our planning, utilizing the tools of the new incentive-based model. Throughout the next fiscal year we will model revenues and plan budgets in a new way. One that allows us to reward growth, reinvest in our future and ensure the success of our common good.

But even as those new budgets take effect in July of 2021, there’s still no magic switch or fiscal cliff. This will be, it must be, an iterative and collaborative process. It will be two to three fiscal years before the full effects of the budget model are in place. And I cannot wait to see what imaginative prospects that has unleashed for our university.

What I ask of you is – engage. If you have questions, ask them. Be patient. Just like there’s no magic switch, there are no magic answers all up front. Be collaborative. Realize we are all in this together – if we do that, our university will be infinitely stronger for it.

And as we get our budget model up and running, I am most excited for how it will help us advance our strategic priorities.

Last year, as we entered the N150 year, I said that I hoped future leaders would look back and say we were Boldly Imagining. It’s not enough to imagine something if you don’t take the steps to make it a reality.

And, I am immensely pleased that today, we are taking actions to be “Boldly Strategic.”

A year ago, the N150 Commission provided us with a clarion call to action for our future, which is worth reiterating: “UNL is unparalleled among public research universities in access, opportunity, innovation, and lifelong experiential learning.” Through their intensive work, they laid out an imaginative 25-year vision for our university – which will be a significant journey.

You can’t begin a big journey without taking first steps. Last spring, I asked a team of our university faculty, staff, students and administration, led by four of our most distinguished faculty, to take on the leadership of the development of a “first” five-year strategic plan. I asked them to think boldly and to lay out concrete steps to get us down the path of the N150 vision to 2025.

I could not be prouder or more appreciative of the efforts of this group. Would you all please stand to receive our appreciation?

And in particular, we will forever be indebted to our four faculty co-chairs – Rick Bevins, Shane Farritor, Angela Pannier, and Susan Sheridan. I intentionally wanted this to be a faculty-driven exercise, and these distinguished professors – and simply amazing leaders-- led an incredibly collaborative process across the campus. Their pride and passion were evident throughout this process. They were the fiercest defenders of the need to aim big and hold ourselves accountable, but also the first to point out if we’d crossed the threshold into pushing too far (perhaps even in conversations with me a time or two). We all owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.

As a result of their efforts and your feedback – today we are unveiling our N2025 Strategic Plan, meant to take the critically important first steps toward our vision. If we don’t get these first five years right, it will be very difficult to be the university we want to be in 2044. This plan gets it right. It hits the right notes. It focuses on the right aims. It will stretch us in meaningful and significant ways.

The overarching theme for this plan – every person and every interaction matters – is one of the core aspirations from the N150 Commission. It speaks clearly and loudly to the aims, strategies and targets of this plan. And it resonates so personally with who we are. At Nebraska, we believe in the power of every person. We believe we offer opportunities for one-to-one engagement that will propel the success of our students, the power of our research and the impact of our engagement. Staying true to this idea – that every person and every interaction matters – empowers us to do the big things called for in this strategic plan.

The N2025 Plan has six major “aims” for our campus dealing broadly with student success and learning, research excellence, creative activity, engagement, diversity and inclusion and investing in our people.

The first aim calls us to “Innovate student experiences that prepare graduates be learners and contributors to the workforce in Nebraska and the world.” In this, you see that we will increase our four-year graduation rate to 55% and our six-year graduation rate to 72%. In addition – and I would say more importantly – we will focus more intentionally on retention, boosting our retention rate of first-year to second-year students to 88%, and our total enrollment by an additional 15%. Perhaps the most audacious goal in this aim is the last one – all graduates will have a documented experiential learning portfolio. We don’t do this across the board today, and we don’t track it effectively. To put this in perspective, next fall’s freshman class will be the class of 2025 – which means they will all graduate with documented internship or apprenticeship, research, international engagement, and community problem-solving experience. That will be a MAJOR accomplishment.

Under the second and third aims we will “Establish a culture at Nebraska committed to increasing the impact of research and creative activity" and "Focus research, scholarship, creative activity and student experiences to foster innovative, interdisciplinary endeavors and solve challenges critical to Nebraska and the world." We want to reach $450 million in research expenditures and increase the prestige awarded to our faculty. These aims will require us to broaden and deepen our interdisciplinary research and increase our intellectual property and transfer. We will also further prioritize our research – aligning at least 50% of strategic investments with Grand Challenges like early childhood education and development, sustainable water and food security, and resiliency in our changing climate. Our next step in 2020 will be to fully define the suite of Nebraska’s “Grand Challenges” – a step we will undertake immediately.

Our fourth aim asks us to “Broaden Nebraska’s engagement in community, industry, and global partnerships.” This aim has only three targets, but the first – achieving the designation of a Carnegie Community Engagement Campus – is very significant and has numerous metrics attached to it. This is a lofty goal, and success will require a concerted and comprehensive effort. We just celebrated 150 years of partnership with Nebraska, its small towns, rural areas and larger cities. If anyone should be designated for “engagement” – it should be the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It’s a recognition that will be worth our investment and reflect our enhanced commitment to the people of this great state.

In the fifth aim we reiterate our commitment to “Create a climate at Nebraska that emphasizes, prioritizes, and expands inclusive excellence and diversity.” We will not succeed as an institution if we do not succeed at this aim. We must reduce barriers, increase diversity and boost the success for all of our students, faculty and staff. This aim provides specific goals for us in increasing the participation and success of under-represented groups across the University.

We will never be an “unparalleled” university without amazing people. I am inspired every day by the incredible work being done by our faculty and staff. We must “Prioritize participation and professional development for all Nebraska students, staff, and faculty.” The targets in this aim speak directly to this and will require us to act across the board in ways we never have. For example, we need to develop the processes and needed documentation if we want to ensure that by 2025, all of our faculty and staff professionals have a documented individualized professional development plan. And, we will begin our work toward inclusion of staff into the university’s governance framework along with our faculty and students.

As a public university, we must always be good stewards of the resources given to us. Our new budget model will help through incentivizing efficiencies and prioritizing the investment of resources to align with these strategic priorities. And we must continue to find ways to be more energy efficient and sustainable in our university operations, including administrative overhead.

You are likely asking yourselves – this sounds great, but how are we going to get it done? In the coming weeks, each of the targets will have a primary leader whose organization is accountable for delivering on that target. That doesn’t mean they do it alone – achieving these big ambitions requires each and every one of us to play a role. The lead organization will need to coordinate and marshal the collaborative efforts needed to achieve that particular target.

We will regularly communicate to campus on our progress, as this will be a living, breathing N2025 Plan – not one sitting on a shelf. We will celebrate our success and dig deep to push forward. We will also annually re-evaluate our targets to assess any needed adjustments or additions.

I am very confident that if we can achieve these six aims, and hit our targets, we will be well on our way to realizing that imaginative future laid out in the N150 Commission Report. Our students will be prepared to boldly and nimbly step into successful careers. Our research will have even greater global impact. Our national standing and reputation will be significantly enhanced. And we will have done far more to live our land-grant mission of engagement with the people of Nebraska.

We are sitting at a tremendous “inflection point” spot in 2020 – achieving great things, attracting incredible people, and building momentum, full of hope and poised for a huge future.

N2025 gives us a great road map for the future for achieving the N150 vision. Now it is off to the races we go!

We now have the privilege to hear from a group of our CUSP Scholars from Rwanda with a particularly powerful musical message, and after that you’ll get a brief update from each of our Deans. I’m very excited about this addition to our format and the opportunity for you to hear from the deans directly as a group. In the years ahead, this will be a time-honored way for us to mark our progress in N2025.

I look forward to having an opportunity for some open dialogue following their remarks and then some concluding remarks before blowing out the candles on 151 and heading in to an exciting 152!

Now please welcome our students to perform.