In his installation address Milliken lauded Nebraska’s earliest pioneers who, in 1869, just two years after Nebraska became a state, chartered the university. He said education is even more important today than it was 100 years ago.
“We know, for example, that the average lifetime earnings of a Nebraskan with a bachelor’s degree are a million dollars more than those of a person with only a high school diploma,” Milliken said. “But a university education provides for more than the means for an individual to earn a living—important as that is. As we look around the world, we are reminded that an enlightened democracy depends on an educated citizenry.”
Milliken said education also has the power to transform a state, and noted that Nebraska is faced with serious economic challenges, demographic shifts, and a structural fiscal dilemma in state government.
“The solution to Nebraska’s challenges is not simple, but it is clear: we must invest in the people of Nebraska in order to build our economic competitiveness,” Milliken said. “We are not a large state, and certainly not a wealthy one. But we have the power to determine our own destiny by educating people who have the vision and the talent to compete in a knowledge-based global economy. I believe that education—and specifically the University of Nebraska—is key to Nebraska’s future.”
Milliken said leading economic research highlights universities as important hubs of creative activity that spur technology and innovation-based development. He pointed to the University of Nebraska’s Peter Kiewit Institute, J.D. Edwards program, and Durham Research Center as excellent models to build upon. “We need to set our sights high, take advantage of our strengths, and vigorously pursue a better quality of life for Nebraskans,” Milliken said.
Milliken said a brighter future depends on growing the talent pool and that the best way to accomplish that is to increase the number of Nebraskans attending college. He noted that Nebraska has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country, but its college-going rate is only average. In addition, the number of adults in Nebraska with a college degree is below the national average. “We cannot hope to lead if we don’t boost our level of educational attainment,” Milliken said.
Among the barriers to college attendance that Milliken cited is a lack of affordable access. “Economic circumstance should not prevent any Nebraskan from attaining a college education,” he said. Milliken said providing an adequate level of need-based aid and keeping tuition at a reasonable level will help ensure that smart, capable students can attend the university. He said affordable public education requires adequate state investment since the primary sources of funds for the university are state appropriations and tuition dollars. And he said that increasing the diversity in higher education is one of the keys to a prosperous Nebraska.
Milliken, who was raised in Fremont and earned his bachelor’s degree with distinction in English from UNL in 1979, making him the first Nebraska-born NU president, said he has been impressed upon his return to Nebraska to find faculty who are passionate about their work and who are making a tremendous contribution to Nebraska. “The principal difference between mediocrity and excellence in higher education is the faculty,” he said. Competition for outstanding faculty is intense, he said, and public universities are at an economic disadvantage compared to their private peers. “To offer Nebraska the best in teaching and research, Nebraska needs to invest both in people and in facilities.” Bills before the Nebraska Legislature would assist NU’s efforts to recruit and retain the best people and to ensure the quality of classrooms and laboratories.
Milliken said a robust research agenda is essential to Nebraska’s success in an economy that depends on knowledge and innovation.
“Public universities have historically led the way in transmitting and applying new knowledge, and we will continue to do so,” Milliken said. “However, today’s innovation-based economy demands new models of engagement between the university and the state, and new ways to share intellectual resources and research with Nebraska citizens and businesses. I will ask Nebraskans to help us determine how and when and where the university can be most helpful and engage most effectively.”
Milliken, who took over as president Aug. 1, 2004, said he had the privilege of traveling the state and talking with Nebraskans about the university during his first six months.
“The message I heard repeatedly is that the people of Nebraska love this university,” Milliken said. “To many, it is the most significant institution in the state. They recognize that it is not only the key to upward mobility for themselves and their children, but that the university is the key to a Nebraska that is prosperous and offers a good quality of life to its citizens.”
The hour-long ceremony today captured Milliken’s pride in his home state, starting with a reading by U.S. Poet Laureate and UNL English professor Ted Kooser, “This is Nebraska,” and continuing through the ceremony and presentation of the medallion of office by NU Board of Regents chair Howard Hawks. The welcome address was given by Molly Corbett Broad, president of The University of North Carolina, where Milliken previously worked as senior vice president for university affairs.
“Today’s ceremony represents a symbolic compact between you – the faculty, staff, students, alumni, regents, the state legislature – and your president,” Broad said. “In J.B. Milliken, you have a leader of surpassing qualities and capacity. He will lead well, but he will lead best of all in partnership. Nebraska needs this great university to advance and sustain its progress.” She said Milliken takes the helm of NU “at a time when the responsibilities of leadership have never been greater; when the tasks have never been more challenging, when the obstacles have never been more formidable. But in the same vein, the needs and the opportunities within higher education have never been greater.”
Later today, Milliken will moderate a panel discussion on the future of public higher education at UNL’s Kimball Hall. Broad will participate in the panel, as will Peter Magrath, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges; Linda Pratt, professor and chair of English at UNL, and Graham Spanier, president of The Pennsylvania State University and former UNL chancellor. The panel will be followed by a public reception at the Van Brunt Visitors Center at 5 p.m. Wednesday’s installation tour of events began with a luncheon at Panhandle Research Center at Scottsbluff and a reception at the Museum of Nebraska Art at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
The University of Nebraska includes four campuses: the University of Nebraska at Kearney, University of Nebraska at Omaha, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The president is the university’s chief executive officer.
Contact: Kelly Bartling, University of Nebraska Office of External Affairs, 402-366-4271