State of the University Address 2000-2001

Harvey Perlman, Chancellor

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This University means a great deal to me. I have been associated with it for most of my life. I am here by choice, having returned to Nebraska after nine years at the University of Virginia Law School. This University has provided a quality education to me, to my wife Susan, and to our two children. Because I was born and raised in Nebraska I also have a keen appreciation for the important role this University plays in the lives of the people of Nebraska. Our reach is statewide; the University of Nebraska-Lincoln plays an important role on the farms and in the smaller communities of rural Nebraska. Our programs provide encouragement and knowledgeable assistance to businesses large and small. We are the source of new technologies that generate new economic activity. We enhance the quality of K-12 education in Nebraska schools and we extend the arts and the humanities across the state to enrich and uplift the lives of its citizens. Our role in Lincoln is most obvious, including our many interactions with state government. But, increasingly, programs associated with this campus contribute to the growth of economic activity in Omaha as well as to the quality of life of that community. This University still represents the greatest source of hope for achieving equality of opportunity and mutual respect for all of the people of Nebraska. There are few citizens of Nebraska whose daily lives we do not touch in some way.

I acknowledge the concern of many, both inside and outside the University, that recent departures from the administration and the interim nature of the current leadership may cause this University to stagnate or even to regress. We face too many opportunities and challenges to permit that to occur. I pledge to you that I will actively pursue both the short- and long-term agendas of this University and I have emboldened my interim colleagues to do the same. I have detected no resistance on the part of candidates for vacancies caused by the number of interim officials. It is a fact of modern University life that administrators come and go. Faculty and staff are the true source of stability, energy, and insight, within a university. You, in your daily commitment to students, to research, to service and to our common objectives will determine the future of this University. I have tremendous confidence and respect for those of you who serve as this University's caretakers, those assembled in this room as well as those who serve in locations throughout the State. Over the next few months we will all share in the responsibility to lead this University and I know all of you understand the seriousness and importance of the work that lies ahead of us.

In the next few minutes I want to do three things. First, I want to briefly assess the current state of the University. Since my appointment as Chancellor I have come to appreciate the many accomplishments, activities, and challenges that characterize our current condition. Of course, I cannot describe everything that is going on but I think I can defend, by example, a description of a University with substantial upward momentum, a place where optimism is winning its battle with cynicism, where the potential and the desire to achieve greatness has never been so real. Second, I want to outline a proposed agenda for the coming year. It would be presumptuous to think that a Chancellor alone can set the campus agenda. But I want to pose an ambitious list of things that appear to me important to accomplish and, in my view, can be realistically accomplished during the coming year. Finally, I will close with some personal remarks.


I first joined the faculty of this University in 1967 and have been associated or attentive to it ever since. I can honestly say that I do not remember a time when the prospects for this University were brighter. There are extraordinary things happening, big things, visible things, that are important for our future. The trend for the University, the forward momentum, is unmistakable.

Consider the Kauffman Center, nearing completion in the center of campus. A result of a most generous gift by Ed and Carol McVaney, that building, and the J.D. Edwards Honors program it will house, should permit us to develop a nationally prominent program. By forging collaborations between faculty from the College of Business Administration, the College of Engineering and Technology and the College of Arts and Sciences, the J.D. Edwards program gives us an extraordinary opportunity to educate future information management professionals, not only in the potential of new technology but also in the demands of leadership.

The Othmer endowment, now approaching $140 million, is another opportunity to move this University forward. The use of Othmer funds to match additional private gifts for endowed professorships and chairs inspired an outpouring of private generosity. These combined private funds will allow us to recruit and to hire faculty who add to the range of experience and high level of accomplishment at this University. The infusion of this talent into existing programs should energize all of us with a new sense of excitement. Othmer funds will enhance graduate student stipends so we can improve the quality of graduate students in our classrooms and our laboratories. The Donald F. Othmer Chemical Engineering building should elevate chemical engineering to new heights. Targeted strategic investments in selected academic programs will further elevate this University.

Other private benefactors have provided us with financial support through the University of Nebraska Foundation's Capital Campaign. I intend after the Campaign winds down to give the University community a detailed accounting of the impact of these gifts.

We have made significant strides in the application and receipt of federal research grants. For example, more than $12 million has been appropriated through the Department of Defense to support vaccine research, nanoscale technology and continuing education and training efforts. Major federal funding initiatives will permit us to remodel parts of Hamilton Hall into a state-of-the-art research space, to expand our plans for the Natural Resources building on East Campus, and to establish a bioprocessing manufacturing facility in Chemical Engineering. We have high hopes of becoming a Regional Humanities Center that will make us the center of humanities programming in this region.

Current construction or renovation projects will enhance Love Library and our programs in art, education, journalism, law and the Center for Great Plains Studies. A new parking garage is under construction. All are the visible signs of our forward momentum.

We should celebrate the good fortune that brought to our campus, if only for a short time, Graham Spanier, Joan Leitzel, James Moeser, Melvin Jones and Marsha Torr, among others. They saw, with the fresh insight of an outsider, the strength and unrealized potential of a great university. Many of our current initiatives bear the large and unmistakable fingerprints of Rick Edwards. I know we all share the hope for his full recovery and speedy return.

We are similarly indebted to those like Irv Omtvedt, Cecil Steward and Karen Craig who moved to Nebraska and whose long administrative careers gave us continuity and steady progress.

Nonetheless, we should remind ourselves that a great university emerges not from the offices of chancellors and deans, but from the daily commitment to excellence by faculty, students, and staff in the classrooms, the offices, the laboratories, the experiment stations, the studios, the extension offices, and the myriad other places where we pursue our teaching, research and service missions.


Our agenda for the upcoming year must continue to build on this forward momentum; our determination to be a great university will first be tested by our collective response to the numerous recent task force reports and initiatives that resulted from the thoughtful consideration by members of our faculty. These reports provide a blueprint for the future. We will seek imput from the broader University community to turn these framework documents into courses of action.


No report or proposal presents us with a greater challenge than the Future Nebraska Task Force Report: A 2020 Vision. The Task Force proposes that we position ourselves among the great public land-grant universities.

It defines the essential ingredients of a "vigorous scholarly community," and calls upon us to have a campus conversation about the kind of University we want to be. It dares us to embrace, in everything we do, a culture of achievement, an insistence on excellence, and an impatience with those who cling to the status quo for its own sake.

If this University lacked the foundation for being a great university, this report could not have been written. It is our own product, generated at our own initiative, produced by a significant sample of our best faculty. Achievement of its recommendations is not predicated on the actions of others but on our commitment to measure all decisions, large and small, against the centrality of academic rigor. It will require that the entire University community maintain consistently high expectations and standards of evaluation.

I enthusiastically endorse this report. But a chancellor's endorsement is largely irrelevant. The vision of this report requires the faculty and administration to honestly accept its recommendations as a means of conducting the affairs of the University.

This University needs to engage in a conversation about this vision of its future. I have asked the Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and the Vice Chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources to urge the college Deans to begin this conversation within their respective faculties early this semester. The Vice Chancellors and I will meet with the Deans at a retreat in early October. I expect that by then, they will be able to represent their faculty's thinking as to whether this report reflects the proper vision of the University and if so, how to implement that vision.

I have also invited the Academic Senate to conduct faculty forums in the same time period so that this conversation can take place in a cross-disciplinary environment.

Out of this process should emerge a broader consensus of what we want for ourselves and a commitment by all of us to move steadily in that direction. If such a consensus seems to emerge, I will share that vision with the Board of Regents. More importantly, this conversation may help determine who seeks to be, and whom we might want, as our next chancellor. I hope this process can be completed no later than December.


The Life Sciences Task Force Report considers the role and structure of the life sciences. This is a significant report. It presents so many issues that have bedeviled us for decades.

Biotechnology will be the next major economic revolution. The mapping of the human genome, the development of cloning techniques, the potential for stem cell therapies, the application of genetic technologies in agriculture, these are just a few of the many developments that make the future both exciting and uncertain. If we are to be a great University, indeed if we are to be a University of quality in the next decade, we must be a major player in the life sciences.

We should acknowledge and build on our strengths. The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, as a leader in agricultural research largely in the life sciences, gives us a tradition and base on which to build. We have major strengths in those city campus departments devoted specifically to the life sciences, and we know that biological sciences increasingly overlap with the disciplines of physics and chemistry. Moreover, meaningful research may require the participation of engineers, statisticians, and computer scientists. The application of these technological advances presents questions that demand the attention of the social sciences, the humanities, business, and the law.

The Task Force report suggests we are not well positioned to fully respond to these developments. Teaching and research in the life sciences is currently fractured among multiple departments on both campuses. We do not have a sufficiently coordinated life science curriculum for our students and collaborative research is made more difficult. And we should openly acknowledge that the historic suspicions and cultural differences that reside on each side of 27th Street contribute to the problem.

I applaud the Task Force for its candid assessment of the current state of the life sciences at this University and on highlighting the importance of change. On balance, however, I do not believe progress will be achieved by structural change in how we administer the campus. The present reality suggests that the rewards of structural change are too few and the costs are too great. Meaningful academic reorganization within a university emerges only after units work together to build curriculum or engage in collaborative research, not as a predicate of such activities. If reform of the life sciences on this campus continues to depend on questions of turf, then the world will pass us by.

I propose we go back to first principles. Our primary obligation is to provide a program of instruction that will prepare our students for life in the 21st century. At a minimum, our highest priority should be to offer students a coordinated, cutting-edge curriculum in the life sciences at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. That is an achievable goal that depends on matters completely within our own control and does not depend on structural change. The faculty must of course construct the details of such a curriculum. To do so will depend on good will, on negotiation, on thoughtful deliberation, and on compromise.

I have asked the Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and the Vice Chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources in consultation with appropriate Deans and Departmental Chairs, to establish by October 1 a process to develop a model life science curriculum and match that model with the resources currently available at the University. A report on such a curriculum should be available by March 1 and should contain a plan for implementation. Such a plan should not require changes in current departmental structures nor should it be based on an assumption of additional faculty. On the other hand, if this timetable is met, I am likely to still be in a position to commit funds for faculty development and course construction in order to further its implementation. I realize this timetable is short but time is short.


Our mission as a land grant University demands that we engage in service to the people of Nebraska. That is a mission that is consistent with, and need not be sacrificed by, enhanced commitments in research. The very purpose of building strength in research is to funnel new knowledge to the people of Nebraska and the world. Similarly, we can not properly serve Nebraska without a strong base in research.

We face some considerable challenges in our service mission as the communities we serve are buffeted by rapid change. The rural communities in Nebraska are under stress and are looking, as they always have, to their University for assistance. There are, of course, limits to our ability to stem the tide of economic dislocations that currently confront agriculture and many small communities. But there are also considerable opportunities for us to bring our research and teaching skills to bear on these problems. Although the problems differ, we have a similar role to play in our urban communities.

Underlying many of these opportunities is our comparative advantage in the use of new technologies. It is increasingly essential that rural communities be a part of the digital community. New technology can extend our teaching mission, and this University has made extended education through web-based instruction a high priority. Our Cooperative Extension service is currently attempting to facilitate, in cooperation with the other campuses, legislators, and local communities, a major effort to identify and make provision for the telecommunication and networking needs of all Nebraskans.

Concurrently, many units on campus have shown enthusiasm and creativity in adapting new technologies to teaching, expanding further the reach of our instructional program. We know there is great promise and great uncertainty in where this will lead us.

We must be prepared to take substantial risks. We must make an educated guess on how to position ourselves with regard to extended education and then we must act accordingly. We must also act quickly. This is an area of intense competition; we do not have the luxury of extended dialogue and cautious progress.

I am thus asking Jim O'Hanlon, as Associate Vice Chancellor for Extended Education, to take the lead in developing an action plan for this campus's role in distance education. The plan should address issues relating to our ultimate objectives, and the resources and administrative structure necessary to achieve these objectives. He should, of course, consult widely with those units and individuals affected. We need a strategy for competing in this marketplace, we need to discuss it as a community, and we need to act. I hope that such a strategy could be offered for discussion before the first of the year and that those discussions could be held early enough in the Spring Semester so that initial implementation could begin within the next budget cycle.

Of course what we think of as distance education, based in technology, is only one way that this University engages the broader community. Thoughtful deliberations have already occurred about how we might enhance this engagement across a broad spectrum of different programs and activities. A Task Force on Extension has offered some interesting proposals for the future role of cooperative extension. We are in the final year of the NN21 project, funded by the Kellogg Foundation, that also has engagement as one of its central considerations.

I have not yet reached any conclusions on how to proceed to energize and stimulate our service activities, other than to realize that this is an area that requires our attention. Thus early in this semester I hope to convene a forum of appropriate persons from within the University to advise me on a sensible way of moving forward on this issue.


I turn to the issue of recruitment and retention of students. Last fall, Chancellor Moeser pledged the following: Active recruitment of every qualified Nebraska high school graduate beginning early in his or her high school career and dramatic increases in our retention and graduation rates over five, now four, years. I fully embrace those objectives.

This university must be first in line and the most persistent recruiter of Nebraska students. In addition, we must aggressively recruit out-of-state students. The single most important impediment to the economic development of the State of Nebraska is its lack of people. We need not apologize for our efforts to become the gateway through which a skilled workforce migrates to Nebraska.

Unfortunately, there remain too many instances in which Nebraska high school students perceive our recruiting efforts as half-hearted. Fortunately we now have a professional, thoughtful, and engaged admissions office under the direction of Susanna Finnell. In the short time that she has been Director of Admissions she has worked hard to build her staff and to begin the process of developing an overall plan for student recruitment. But she will need the help of the University community.

All of us - faculty, staff and current students - have a real stake in our recruitment success.

We should look at the process of student recruitment as an opportunity to engage the taxpayers of this state, who are also parents, in a conversation about their University.

We must also intensify our efforts to retain enrolled students beyond the first year and on through graduation. Our rank among peer institutions with regard to graduation rates of those students who began their studies six years ago is unacceptable. This is particularly a concern for those students who add a diverse dimension to our community. For first-time, full-time freshman entering in the fall of 1993, we were ninth out of eleven among our peer group in retaining them through graduation.

There are to be sure some hopeful signs. Retention rates for first-year students over the last few years when more rigorous admissions criteria were applied are rising. The report of the Task Force on the Freshman Experience has been embraced by many of the academic units serving to enhance a student's first year experience where many of the links between the student and the University are established. Faculty throughout the University are involved in UCARE, learning communities, and a variety of activities that support retention, and also reflect committed teaching.

However, students drop out of this University one by one and they must be rescued one by one. This can only be achieved by those who come into daily contact with them. That involves faculty, staff and other students. I think we underestimate the importance of staff in this regard. I know from my experience at the Law College that our secretarial staff saved more wavering legal careers than any other single program or activity. Faculty have an important role to play as well. When my own undergraduate career began spiraling downward, I can still remember conversations I had with my teachers who demonstrated the right balance between disappointment and concern. These were not, I should add, graduate students or younger faculty members. I can remember Professor Wilbur Gaffney giving me some allowance for what he recognized as a "sophomore slump" while still insisting that I complete the work assigned. And there were Professors Albin Anderson and Jack Sosin in the History Department and Professor Roberto Esquenazi in Spanish who made this struggling truant from York, Nebraska, feel a part of the University.

None of us should underestimate our importance to the success of our students.

This is not such a large University that it cannot be a warm and embracing place for every student. Each student is important to us in many ways. At the risk of sounding crass, this includes our bottom line: If over the last two years we would have retained a significant number of those students who dropped out, we would have avoided some of the pain of our recent budget reallocations. This should be enough to focus our attention on this important problem.

I propose that at an early date, the Academic Senate, UNOPA, UAAD and ASUN consider how their members can contribute to our retention efforts. Perhaps all we need is an understanding of the importance of this issue and a commitment on behalf of the faculty and staff and the student body to make a difference.


Earlier, I noted that our retention rate for students of color is lower than the rate for all students. This is particularly distressing to me, and an issue that we need to substantively address. Students of color and those whose ethnic, religious or cultural heritage differs from mainstream Nebraska bring vital and enriching perspectives to our campus.

Notwithstanding what we do to enhance our research efforts, to improve and expand our instructional capacities, and to reinvigorate our service missions, we cannot be a great University unless our community is diverse in its perspectives and in its personnel. This is not a matter of political correctness or of liberal or conservative ideology. It is a matter of fact. The University is a place where students mature socially and intellectually and prepare themselves for a lifetime of professional and personal experiences. Those experiences will increasingly take place in a diverse environment as business activity continues its global scope and our society continues to beckon persons of different races, cultures, and different religions to its shores. A student who graduates from this University without acquiring through experience a taste and respect for difference is no better than a student who graduates without being able to read or write. Thus we must continue, indeed intensify, our efforts to recruit and retain students, faculty and staff with varying skin colors, different cultures, and different religious outlooks. And we must create a climate that is embracing of all of the ways in which we may differ from each other whether its hair color, gender, socio-economic background, or sexual orientation.

While I think we can be proud of the steps that have been taken toward these ends, we can not be content with where we are. We do have specific programs in place to attract persons of color to both the student body and the faculty. We know full well what we have to do to make progress and we need to do it. The issues of climate are more intractable. In essence they involve changing biases and attitudes that are deep within all of us. This University has taken steps to celebrate our differences and to respond to concerns of intolerance within the University. While the success of efforts to recruit faculty, for example, can be easily measured, the measurement of success of our programs designed to create an embracing climate are more difficult. Nonetheless, we need to know where we are and over time we need to know whether we are improving.

I will ask those officials responsible for our diversity programs to explore and to develop a meaningful way to enhance the climate of mutual respect at this University and to create a plan for continued monitoring and assessment. This is not an easy task. The information we seek is not easily obtained and the plan must be credible to a broad segment of the University in order for it to be effective. Further, we need a formal mechanism for units to share with each other methods and strategies that have proven effective in enhancing diversity and mutual respect in this community. I am hopeful that such a plan can be implemented before this academic year is over.


What I have outlined is by no means an exclusive list of the challenges that we must address over the forthcoming year. The biggest challenge of all is to continue to care for and enhance the newly seeded optimism that one finds in so many places within the University. We can not permit the recent departures to become an excuse for lack of continued progress. We can not permit those who fail to fully understand our importance to the future of this State, to depress our spirit or change our course. We cannot permit to dominate our debates, those few among us who fear the risks of change or who see neither their own nor our collective potential.

Henry Kissinger is quoted as saying, "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." That joke may aptly describe the nature of University politics but it grossly underestimates the consequences. What we do here can make a difference. It can make a difference in our students' lives and careers. It can make a difference in the economic success of the State of Nebraska. What we do can enrich and give added meaning to the lives of all Nebraskans.

I invite those of you who are my colleagues at the University and those in the larger community who support our enterprise to help me continue to enhance this University. This is serious business. But serious business can be done with a light heart. We can measure our success not only on how much we accomplished but on how much fun we had doing it.