Good morning, and welcome to the University of Nebraska’s second annual Rural Futures Conference. Special greetings to those of you joining us for the first time. I am especially pleased that tomorrow we will be joined by Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, who is delivering the Heuermann Lecture on his vision for rural America and growing the rural economy. Secretary Vilsack will be here in his capacity as chair of the White House’s National Rural Council and we’ll be delighted to have him in Nebraska. I think the president’s creation of the Rural Council indicates that rural issues are regarded at the very highest levels as critical to the nation’s health.
I want to say a word about the history of the university’s Rural Futures Institute, because I’ve been a supporter and champion of this initiative since Day 1 and I have a deep personal interest in the work that will take place here. The inspiration, of course, dates back to 1862 and the land-grant movement in this country. Nebraska, like Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan and many other states represented at this conference, was at the forefront of this movement and is still committed to it today. The Morrill Act ushered in a remarkable period of advancement in this country that we are reaping the benefits of in the 21st century: opening the doors of higher education to the sons and daughters of farmers and mill workers, creating a platform for research to provide economic opportunity and advance a new nation, and connecting through extensions and other means the intellectual capital of great universities with people in the field, the factory and our communities.
There have been many initiatives in Nebraska and elsewhere to further this important work, but I know that many of us felt we were not realizing the full potential of what could be achieved by leveraging our resources, intellectual capacity and energy. The forerunner for this effort was the Nebraska Rural Initiative, launched in the late 1990s by the University. With the wise guidance of Sam Cordes and others, we assessed what was positive with that initiative and others, but more importantly what could be achieved with the right recipe. The germ of an idea for RFI was hatched. With the addition of Ronnie Green, we had a partner who shared the vision and commitment and brought new energy and ambition to our dream.
A year and a half ago, when we hosted the first Rural Futures Conference, the idea began to catch fire. The Rural Futures Institute hadn’t been officially launched yet. We didn’t have an organization or permanent leadership in place. We had begun laying the groundwork by surveying faculty and other key stakeholders, but our thinking about the mission of the institute was still in its nascent stages. We are much indebted to Mark Gustafson for his early leadership as interim director of the Rural Futures Institute.
Last year’s conference – in which a number of you were active participants – provided an opportunity for us to test our theory that an institute dedicated to rural life and development was something we should invest in. We sensed that an institute like this could make a major difference in the lives of rural residents in Nebraska and globally, and we felt that the University of Nebraska – with faculty and resources across four campuses, partners around the state, and a rich history of serving Nebraska’s communities – had an opportunity to take a leadership role. We knew we were talking about something big that involved significant risk… but as I said then, and as I continue to believe, that’s what makes this worth doing.
But we wanted to confirm with external partners that this was a path we should go down. And you helped us do just that. Not only with interest in our first conference that exceeded our capacity, but with your deep engagement, energy and support for what we had set out to do. Two broad concepts came out of that conference that have greatly helped our thinking: First, it became clear that if we were going to create a Rural Futures Institute, it needed to be truly trans-disciplinary. This is not about agriculture or business or health or tourism alone. It involves all of those disciplines and many others – law, economics, transportation, medicine and public health, communication – all the areas relevant to rural people and rural communities. The University of Nebraska, with faculty with expertise in each of these areas, is well-positioned to address such a range of issues.
Secondly, the conference validated the idea that the research mission of the institute needed to be broad-based, including the biological sciences, social sciences, the business world, the legal world and others. But to realize the vision many of you helped nurture, we cannot do this alone. We knew we needed to engage partners in the state, regionally and beyond in order to be successful.
I am pleased to be able to say that today, in addition to continuing to talk about those things, we’re doing them. We have made real progress since the last time we convened this conference. First, we’ve hired a founding executive director of the Rural Futures Institute, Chuck Schroeder, a son of the soil from a ranching community with deep experience with and passion for rural issues. Chuck doesn’t officially begin until Dec. 1 but he is already engaged in the work of the institute and he is with us this week. I believe we’ve found exactly the right person to lead the institute through its early phases and I could not be more pleased to have attracted Chuck back to Nebraska. Chuck will speak tomorrow about his vision for the institute and it will be an excellent opportunity for all of us to hear from him directly.
Additionally, following a call for proposals, we have awarded $750,000 in competitive grants for teaching, research and outreach projects focused on issues of importance to the Rural Futures Institute.
In evaluating the many proposals we received, we kept in mind a few key criteria: The projects had to involve faculty from one or more University of Nebraska campus, and they had to involve partnerships outside the university. The first round of projects is underway and they are addressing issues as diverse as ecotourism, juvenile re-entry into rural communities, rural public health, rural entrepreneurship, community marketing and others. All four University of Nebraska campuses are represented among the grant recipients, as are partners in the business sector, government and other land-grant institutions. We’ll initiate the second round of grants at this conference and I’m excited to see what new projects come out of that.
Much of the heavy lifting for the Rural Futures Institute is in front of us. But when I reflect on where we were just a short time ago, I am extremely pleased with the steps we’ve taken and the momentum and energy that I see around this initiative. That is a testament to the hard work and commitment of colleagues at the University of Nebraska and other universities represented here today, community leaders around the state and across the region and beyond who share our vision for a Rural Futures Institute that will help create, grow, and sustain a vibrant, competitive future for rural people and communities everywhere. I want to thank you for your collaboration thus far – and urge you to keep thinking boldly and creatively going forward.
Again, welcome to the Rural Futures Conference. I think we have a great couple of days ahead of us, and I’m excited to see what new ideas emerge.