Aug. 11, 2014
Dear University of Nebraska Colleagues,
I have now had the honor of serving as interim president of this great institution for 100 days. There is a tradition, often linked to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in which individuals in a leadership position use their 100th day of service to reflect upon their early accomplishments.
I’m adopting this tradition – with a twist. These are not my personal achievements, but those of many from throughout the University. I also want to share with you what I have learned about the University from this unique vantage point, which is quite different than my lens as a faculty member. And, I want to lay out some of what I hope we can accomplish together during the next 100 days and beyond. I apologize in advance for the length of this letter, which violates (in a big way) my usual “one-page” rule for correspondence. I hope you agree the content justifies the length. Nothing written here is confidential, so please feel free to share these thoughts with your friends and family.
The breadth of activities at the University of Nebraska is substantial. I regularly read the news coming from each campus and am amazed by your accomplishments, contributions and engagement. Examples include the formation of a new integrated clinical enterprise at UNMC, the rapid growth of programming at the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center at UNO, the excitement about Nebraska Innovation Campus, which celebrates its grand opening this week at UNL, and the newly opened, state-of-the-art Wellness Center at UNK – to say nothing of the work you do daily to provide our students with a high-quality education that prepares them for success, conduct research relevant to Nebraskans and people around the world, and perform outreach in every county in the state. This snapshot, however brief, reflects your commitment to the University of Nebraska’s fundamental responsibility to change lives, as well as the effective leadership of the Chancellors and Deans. I encourage you to follow University developments at www.nebraska.edu or @U_Nebraska on Twitter. Knowing what your peers are doing can create interesting opportunities for collaboration.
As a longtime UNMC faculty member, my understanding of Central Administration (UNCA, located in Varner Hall) was limited. Working with the 40 or so individuals based at UNCA has been a pleasure. They usually contribute in the background, since most of the “action” (education, research and service) is on your campuses or at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis. During my initial months as interim president, I’ve come to understand that a university system office fills three major roles: 1) interacting with oversight bodies, including the Board of Regents, Nebraska policymakers and the federal government; 2) securing financial resources for the University, largely through state appropriations and in partnership with the University of Nebraska Foundation; and 3) providing a framework for a multi-campus system to collaborate. I’ll discuss each of these and their impact on the University.
The elected regents and student regents supervise the operation of the University and the direction of expenditures. They care deeply about the University and are committed to the success of each campus. Nebraska is fortunate to have its only public university organized as a single system to serve its citizens. There are unique strengths at UNO, UNK, UNL and UNMC, and in NCTA, and each plays a vital role for the people of our state. Our counterparts in states with multiple uncoordinated public institutions are forced to expend great effort lobbying their state governments and competing against their higher education counterparts. But we have the opportunity to speak in a single voice to the Nebraska Governor and Legislature, which we believe strengthens our message and is a key reason why Nebraska has a strong history of supporting public higher education.
While our policymakers must balance many important priorities, they recognize the contributions the University makes in educating the next generation of Nebraskans. I have met with many Senators and to a person they understand the important role the University of Nebraska plays and appreciate the good work being done here. We are indeed fortunate, and should humbly accept our role and continue our efforts to retain that respect. I should also mention that the University of Nebraska works closely with the community and state colleges in Nebraska. We have recently put new procedures in place to optimize transfer of credits when possible and to build an integrated learning experience for students who chose that path. In addition, we manage two major automated systems that also support the state college system’s finance and payroll (SAP) system as well as their student information system (NeSIS) and in concert with the State we operate a Statewide network called Network Nebraska.
On the federal side, many of the programs we have adopted, such as Collegebound Nebraska, the University of Nebraska High School, our P-16 programs and efforts to assure the safety of students, are in line with or ahead of some of the priorities that have been articulated nationally. There is particular interest across the country in doing more to ensure that all students – no matter their socioeconomic status – have access to higher education, and in this area I think the University of Nebraska is ahead of the game. Our tuition rates are typically 25 percent or more lower than those of our peer institutions, which results in lower student debt burdens.
The second topic – our financial resources – is important to understand. The budget defines what the University can do; it’s no different than how you manage your household. You may hear that the budget of the University is $2.4 billion. Yes, that is “billion” with a B. But the majority of those funds – about two-thirds – come to us with designations and restrictions, including private gifts, financial aid, research contracts, and self-supporting operations such as housing and UNL athletics. These monies flow through the University accounting system with little latitude on how they can be spent. The remaining funds – state appropriations and tuition revenue – constitute the FY2015 $864 million “state-aided” budget that supports key instructional activities, research, outreach and general operations of the University. Investment in our employees is our single biggest expenditure, with salaries and benefits making up more than 80 percent of the state-aided budget.
Even though we are only a month into the current fiscal year, we are already planning for the two-year budget cycle that will begin next year. In July we developed biennial budget request guidelines for FY2016 and FY2017 that were unanimously approved by the Board of Regents. Subsequent editorial coverage in the media was positive, as were my initial meetings with policymakers. But regental approval is just the first step in a long process. Next the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education will review our request, which in turn will be sent to the Governor and Legislature for consideration. No funding is guaranteed until the Legislature appropriates funds and the Governor acts on the budget bills in May 2015. Then the University President will present the FY2016 annual operating budget to the regents, which will include recommendations on tuition, salaries and other priorities. Because of term limits, we will have many new leaders in state government and in the coming months we will be communicating with them and other citizens around the state about the importance of supporting the University. Remember, all of you can be advocates.
Our biennial budget request includes modest increases for healthcare and operations, strategic investments in high-priority academic areas, funds to address salary shortfalls of some faculty and staff, and support for multi-campus initiatives that can advance the University’s work in growing Nebraska’s economy. We believe – and we hope policymakers agree – that the University plays a leading role in economic development, so we have put forward an economic competitiveness initiative that would help build Nebraska’s economy, creating opportunities for both our graduates and the state. We hope to make a strong case that the University is well-positioned to do even more to meet workforce needs through education, critical research and private-sector partnerships if the right investments are made. We are very grateful for the support the state has provided in recent years for University projects and we look forward to discussing our request with policymakers in more detail in the months ahead.
I won’t talk about revenue without also talking about spending – and specifically the steps we are taking to demonstrate accountability to Nebraskans who entrust us with their resources. We have begun looking at potential cost saving opportunities in areas that include information technology, business transactions, health services and human resources. By managing costs we can undertake new programs that benefit the University and the state. And no cost savings is too small. I have invited my colleagues in Varner Hall – and I invite you now – to send me suggestions, anonymously or otherwise, on how the University can save money, operate more efficiently or better accomplish our education, research and service missions. You are welcome to submit your suggestions using the submission form. I review each suggestion personally and would be pleased to hear your ideas.
Speaking of costs, some facts you should know:
• After inflation, spending per FTE student has decreased over the last 15 years. State appropriation and tuition per FTE student was $19,200 in 2014 versus $19,600 in 2000 on an inflation-adjusted basis.
• We’re delivering a great value. Education and related spending per completed degree (2011) at UNL is $56,374 compared to a peer average of $66,462 and a national average of $63,739.
• Administrative spending per student at all four campuses is lower than that at peer institutions.
• There has been a 12 percent decline in state-aided employee FTEs per student from 2000 to 2014. In that same time period, the overall number of state-aided employee FTEs has remained flat at around 7,800, even as enrollment has grown from 45,000 to 50,000 and our research enterprise has expanded significantly.
• There are more than 13,600 employees at NU, of whom 5,800 are supported by grants, contracts or other non-state aided funds. These employees greatly enrich the University without cost to the Nebraska taxpayer.
My message is that, taken together, these facts illustrate that the University has been responsible in its use of public resources, being able to educate more students, grow research activities and expand its outreach without pricing out the Nebraska families we exist to serve. I believe the runaway education costs reported in many media outlets are not evident in Nebraska.
Philanthropy has been an enormous driver of the growth of the University during the past decade. The “Campaign for Nebraska” will conclude in December, having raised nearly $1.8 billion – 50 percent more than our original goal. Generous donors have thus far contributed $260 million for student scholarships, $87 million for faculty support, $566 million for academic programs, $55 million for research, $624 million for capital projects and another $150 million in multi-purpose gifts. Without this support, the University would be a shadow of what it is today. The University of Nebraska Foundation, volunteer campaign leaders and all of the donors who have given during the Campaign have our deep gratitude. I am now working with the Foundation on planning for initiatives that will begin in 2015 to carry on the momentum we have built. These will include alumni outreach, enhanced academic program support and expansion of scholarships to maintain affordability. Nebraskans understand the good work that comes from the dollars that they donate to the University – work that likely would not be possible without philanthropic support.
The third topic to address is collaboration between campuses and faculty across the University of Nebraska. The short summary is, “The more we work together, the more we can accomplish.” For years institutes and centers on the campuses have pooled the talents of faculty to conduct research and deliver education. But, thanks to your good work, the support of University leadership, and in some cases the contributions of generous and visionary donors, in recent years we have been able to take that model to the next level. We have launched broad and deep University-wide institutes – the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute, Buffett Early Childhood Institute, Rural Futures Institute, Peter Kiewit Institute and the National Strategic Research Institute – each rooted in University strengths and priorities, and each with a mission to link faculty and resources across our campuses to accomplish goals that could not be met by a single department, college or campus alone. Unexpected discoveries can occur when you partner with colleagues from unrelated disciplines. These institutes, each led by incredibly talented and recognized leaders, have the potential to attract talent to our state, generate significant research support, elevate the University’s national and international reputation and – most importantly – deliver results that change lives in Nebraska and around the world. I encourage you to become affiliated with an institute if your academic activities can support its mission.
A substantial opportunity for faculty collaboration is the University of Nebraska Online Worldwide. The University of Nebraska currently offers more than 100 online degrees, certificates and endorsements. Expanding distance education opportunities is essential to our goals of increasing access, meeting student needs, and producing a highly skilled workforce for the state. We are seeing significant growth in enrollment in online courses among both undergraduate and graduate students, and there is demand from students who attend our physical campuses and those who are distant from NU. Our first MOOC, a health literacy course developed at UNMC, debuts this fall and already has 4,500 students signed up.
To be blunt, the University must have an aggressive online education strategy – one focused on expanding access while maintaining our high quality – or we risk becoming irrelevant. There will be great opportunities for faculty who are willing and able to develop coursework for the new learning environment. Your peers, faculty who have already had experience in these courses, can be great advisors as you consider developing online content.
I could go on for quite a while detailing the important and impressive work that you’re doing now and the opportunities that are emerging at the University. You may be interested to read “A Decade of Distinction: State of the University 2014,” which highlights accomplishments of the past decade and lays out some themes for the future. Suffice it to say here that because of you, we have built tremendous momentum and we have potential to achieve even more.
The next 100 days will take us almost to Thanksgiving. Between now and then, I challenge all of us to work together to take advantage of the opportunities we have to change the lives of people in Nebraska and around the world. Thank you for all you do for this great university.
James Linder, M.D.