Farewell State of the University - Challenges and Opportunities

A Flagship University

First, Nebraska as a state cannot be competitive unless it has a strong, growing, cutting-edge comprehensive research university. That university is the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This is certainly not to dismiss the contributions or the importance of our sister campuses. The University system is blessed to be structured so that it has four separate universities with four distinct missions. It is critical, in my view, that we stay true to that structure and that we pursue it vigorously. Nebraska must recognize the unique opportunities and unique needs of its flagship campus. Similarly, we must acknowledge our unique obligations to the state and its people.

Lincoln and Omaha

Second, during the last 15 years many of us have worked hard to eliminate the unnecessary rivalries between UNL and UNO and between Lincoln and Omaha. We are pursuing several collaborative opportunities. Nebraska is not well served by those who still try to exploit these past rivalries for their own agendas. Each university and each city have important ambitions. For us, we must measure our competitive success not by looking east to Omaha but beyond to Ohio State, to Penn State and to Purdue.

City/East Campus and the issues of food.

Third, by heritage and location this university, if it is to be a great university, must be great in the life sciences. In many ways the world is coming to us to help solve emerging issues of scarce food supplies, climate change, water availability, and environmental sustainability. I believe there has been a significant reduction in the competitive tensions that existed between the East and City campuses. We have even greater opportunities if these tensions continue to abate.

The agricultural interests in Nebraska increasingly recognize the importance of many of the disciplines on the City Campus to their success. Indeed, the bigger challenge is to convince those disciplines that there is a larger role for them to play in the central issues associated with the life sciences. Earlier this year in my State of the University I proposed a task force on food to explore multi-disciplinary opportunities for all disciplines to participate in our food initiative. I was not able to get this accomplished. I continue to believe it is an opportunity that should be explored.

Food is at the center of national and world politics. Internationally, food security is probably as large a threat to existing governments as nuclear proliferation. The Arab Spring was in part generated by hunger in the Middle East. And how do we confront resistance to genetically modified crops, or chemically based agriculture or the treatment of food animals in the face of a growing global food shortage? I continue to believe there are many faculty, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences that could contribute to a food initiative and benefit themselves, as well.

Modern Languages

Fourth, I am hopeful that my successor will continue our efforts to internationalize our university; to embrace the citizens of the world and to engage the scholarly community across the globe. International efforts are hard, often frustrating, and require adaptation of both teaching and research practices. This is not only critical to any pretense of being a great university but it is also central to giving our students an experience necessary for their future success.

In the greater world of higher education, modern language departments are under assault, in part for their concentration on traditional western languages. One way this discipline could increase its relevance is to take a leadership role in our international initiatives. Language, and language instruction, is the window through which we can better understand and better interact with cultures different from our own. We are naïve if we don’t recognize that our future potential partners and our future potential competitors will speak Mandarin and Arabic.

Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and Innovation Campus

Fifth, in the age of science and innovation, there is much concern nationally about the future of the social sciences and the humanities. Throughout our recent research growth, under Prem’s leadership, this university has tried to celebrate and support the efforts in these disciplines.

However, these disciplines also have contributions they could make to Nebraska Innovation Campus and opportunities to interact with the private and public sectors to advance our research and economic development objectives. There has to be room at a great University for curiosity-based research – research without known practical objectives. On the other hand, I believe the arts, the social sciences, and the humanities, while remaining true to their traditions, are not diminished if they also explore ways to contribute to very practical ends.

Two of the most successful companies in today’s tech-based world are Amazon and Google, both of which are essentially marketing the humanities. And one of the key gaps in any national security strategy, gaps recognized by our military leadership, is the failure to employ the teachings of the social sciences and the humanities.

Our failure in the Middle East is not the failure of military power but the failure to account for the teachings of history, the failure to understand the Arabic people through their art, language and literature, and the failure to appreciate the social forces that tend to either hold or divide their societies.


Sixth, Big Ten universities are known for great business, agriculture and engineering colleges. With recent initiatives the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources can hold its own and indeed lead in many areas. The College of Business Administration is poised for significant achievement with its new building and a young and vibrant faculty. There is, however, an urgency in moving toward a Big Ten college of engineering.

That college faces significant barriers: the cost and scarcity of engineering faculty, the disinterest and lack of understanding among high school students about the opportunities for engineering careers, facilities that are outdated for modern engineering research, and the politics around the divided locations in Lincoln and Omaha. These barriers are being addressed.

Given the talent that exists, our expectations for that college should remain high and we should anticipate significant growth in the next few years in both enrollment and research. But a sense of urgency here is important for the success of the university and the state of Nebraska.


Seventh, our state, and accordingly our university, is becoming increasingly diverse-- diverse by race, by religion, by nationality, by gender, by sexual orientation. However impactful our research, however stimulating our teaching, however effective our engagement with our community, the excellence of this university will increasingly be measured by its success in embracing diverse communities by both respecting their differences while recognizing our commonalities.


Finally, I have to acknowledge that, notwithstanding that I don’t hire football coaches and I don’t call plays, if my success as chancellor is to be measured by the success of our football team, it would be regarded as a failure. I accept responsibility for my mistakes here. But I also had the misfortune of becoming chancellor at the end of an extraordinary period in the history of Husker football. I have often thought that the critics during these last several years do not give sufficient credit to Tom Osborne who was, in fact, one of the extraordinary football coaches in the modern era.

Whether that level of consistent high achievement can be replicated, in a very changing landscape of rules and realities, is not clear.

I am confident that we are currently as well positioned as at any time since Tom retired as coach to reach a high level of success. We have the resources and the leadership to maximize our opportunities.

I do think that athletics, particularly football, plays a unique and largely positive role within higher education and society at large. At the same time, my successor will need to understand that the landscape of intercollegiate athletics is rapidly changing and, in fact, as an enterprise, faces real existential threats. The NCAA has lost its moral leadership. It and major athletic conferences are facing a series of lawsuits built on the premise that we exploit student athletes for financial gain. I do not believe this is true, but in an effort, doomed to failure, to level the playing field between high and more modestly resourced program, the NCAA has adopted a set of rules that are increasingly difficult to justify. Unless institutions are able to adopt sensible reforms, courts may significantly alter or destroy any justification for the continuing involvement of higher education in this enterprise.

Individual programs, as well as the major athletic conferences, will need to be careful and smart as they navigate through these perilous waters in the years ahead. I am confident that Nebraska can be a leader in providing its student-athletes with a positive, healthy experience consistent with the values of higher education.

But we should not assume that the world of high-level college sports, particularly football and men’s basketball, will remain the same as it is now without a sustained reform effort, an effort that in many ways Nebraska is leading.

So that’s about it for me. I want to thank the talented staff in University Communications, particularly Dave Fitzgibbon, who have produced most of the recent versions of “Perls of Knowledge” and is one of the best and most creative videographers I know; and Annette Wetzel, who for 15 years has kept events like this from growing stale with her imaginative ideas and flawless execution.

And, of course, thanks to each of you for your contributions to the university.

Saying farewell is never easy. So to avoid the embarrassment of my own tears or watching your glee in seeing me go, we will end with “The Final Perl.”