Smith: NU has fostered a culture of excellence
People often ask L. Dennis Smith what he considers his greatest accomplishment as president of the University of Nebraska. His answer: "Without hesitation, I can say that I have tried to foster a culture of excellence in which research and scholarly study are valued."

Smith told the University of Nebraska Board of Regents today he is grateful for the support of the four campus chancellors in encouraging aggressive competition for research funding. "The faculty responded, and the results are phenomenal," he said.

Smith made the remarks during his annual state-of-the-university address –his last as president.

When Smith arrived in 1994, the university was bringing in about $66 million annually in competitive research grants. This year so far, competitive grants stand at $147 million, and Smith said that, before he steps down next June, he expects the university to surpass $175 million. Recent grants have included $10.5 million to study genes in neurosensory systems at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and $6.5 million to develop a botulism vaccine at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Smaller, but critically important grants include $800,000 for the University of Nebraska at Kearney to help improve English proficiency in Nebraska schools, and $2 million to the University of Nebraska at Omaha to help increase the number of students pursuing science and mathematics degrees.

Research was only one area Smith cited as having improved significantly over the past decade. Others include:
  • New and renovated buildings on all four campuses thanks to an $80 million bond issue funded jointly by the university and the Nebraska Legislature and with additional support from the University of Nebraska Foundation;
  • Recruitment of top students –Smith said only a few top scholars chose NU campuses in 1993; this year, over half the Nebraska high school scholars listed in the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal Star chose NU;
  • A growing national reputation for graduate education –with over a dozen graduate programs listed in U.S. News & World Report’s 2004 rankings of "Best Graduate Schools;"
  • Improved diversity, thanks in part to creation of the position of Associate to the President to advance minority and gender equity –minority faculty numbers have more than doubled and minority student enrollment has grown from 5.9 to 7.5 percent during the decade;
  • Concentration on the needs of Nebraska farmers and ranchers and improved rural health care;
  • Implementation of systems to make university communications and business operations more efficient and effective;
  • Better communication about the university and its value to the state through an integrated marketing plan;
  • More private funding, including $727 million raised by the NU Foundation in its "Campaign Nebraska."
These and other improvements happened because faculty, staff, and students at the university –plus business and agriculture leaders and grassroots supporters– pulled together to overcome some serious obstacles in the quest for quality, Smith said. He noted that when he came, the university lacked focus, with campuses competing for resources. The development of a "single voice" approach to dealing with the Legislature has changed that situation, Smith said. A strong central administration, able to present a unified message, has been helpful in good times and bad, he said, winning support for new programs when funds were available, and allowing the university to invest in priority programs even during recent difficult financial times.

Smith also presented the regents with a vision of the University of Nebraska in the future that:
  • students select as their first choice among all schools
  • reaches out to minority students, especially in Latino and low-income families
  • wins multi-million dollar grants in science, humanities, medicine, and technology to improve health care, agriculture, and business operations
  • aggressively seeks new strategic partnerships with the business community
  • reaches all Nebraskans through a statewide telecommunications network
  • encourages individual campuses to pursue their unique missions but also to work in collaboration to advance teaching, learning, and discovery.
"Today, I look back over a decade of dramatic change," Smith said. "I am gratified by the progress we have made. The University of Nebraska is truly on the road to becoming a great university."

Smith has announced plans to step down from the university presidency effective June 30, 2004. Following a faculty development leave, he plans to teach in the UNL School of Biological Sciences.
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