‘A cost we can’t afford’: Faculty blast state for not investing in university

Faculty across the University of Nebraska said Friday the state government is forcing NU to “collapse into a more limited version of its former self.”
Published: Nov. 18, 2023 at 2:41 PM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) - Faculty across the University of Nebraska said Friday the state government is forcing NU to “collapse into a more limited version of its former self.”

In the face of mounting budget cuts and stalled state investments, faculty at NU’s Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney campuses in a joint statement said the state government is starving Nebraska of educational opportunities and economic development that an adequately funded state university could offer.

Nebraska has a choice, they added: provide a higher education environment where all children can pursue their dreams and creativity or restrict opportunity to the wealthy few with fewer possible subjects.

“Right now, the Unicameral and Board of Regents are choosing the second option for our state,” the statement reads. “That’s a choice that cheapens our future, and that’s a cost we can’t afford.”

The Friday statement is penned by the University of Nebraska at Kearney Education Association, which represents full-time faculty, and the campus chapters of the American Association of University Professors at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The AAUP is a national nonprofit of faculty and other academic professors that seeks to advance academic freedom and shared governance.

Beyond the status quo

Melissa Lee, chief communications officer for NU, reviewed the joint statement and said Friday evening the Board of Regents has challenged NU to think differently about how to grow and compete in today’s changing market.

Lee said NU’s next steps are discussing how NU will focus on its needs, not wants, while considering trims such as degrees that have consistently low enrollment or redundant operations.

“Nebraskans expect their University to get better every day, not settle for the status quo,” Lee said.

Regent Tim Clare of Lincoln, chair of the Board of Regents, said NU’s plan is not to limit its mission. He’s excited about opportunities to be more competitive and nimble — and about NU’s goal to rejoin the Association of American Universities.

But, he said, the university can’t be all things to all people.

“We owe it to the taxpayers to spend our money on the things that bring the greatest possible return to the state of Nebraska,” Clare said in a statement.

On the cusp of dramatic change

Julia Schleck, a UNL AAUP member and vice chair of UNL’s Department of English, described the cuts in terms of biological systems that can absorb a certain amount of impact until their resilience is weakened, blow after blow.

Since coming to UNL in 2006, Schleck said, it’s felt as though there are cuts nearly every year.

“The system itself starts being threatened with collapse in the way that it had previously been constructed,” Schleck said. “Its essential identity changes in some dramatic way, and it feels very much like the university is on the cusp of that.”

UNL Chancellor Rodney Bennett proposed $12 million in cuts and UNK has proposed $4.3 million in cuts so far this year. They are part of NU’s projected $58 million shortfall projected over the next two years.

Future will be ‘undermined’

Will Avilés, president of the UNKEA and a professor of political science, said that if UNK approves its proposed cuts, with deep impacts in humanities, UNK will be a lesser institution.

UNK has proposed eliminating its departments of geography, philosophy and theater as well as various degrees ranging from geography and modern languages with a French or German emphasis to journalism and sports communications.

“I don’t see how we better ourselves by weakening these institutions,” Avilés said. “The expectation of a complete and comprehensive education is going to be undermined if these cuts are pursued.”

UNL and UNO are anticipating academic cuts in the near future, the joint statement adds, and faculty questioned whether funding for initiatives such as the Nebraska Promise that covers tuition for low-income students could dry up soon.

Lee said NU will continue to invest in priorities such as Nebraska Promise and growing programs that meet workforce demand and attract funding.

‘A better future’

Laura Grams, an associate professor of philosophy and president of UNO AAUP, said that while her campus is in a different place — no specific cuts at this time — faculty and staff are in the business of transforming lives and giving people economic opportunity.

“That is what is bringing us into work every day — to make our students’ lives better and to help them gain access to the tools they need for a better future,” Grams said.

Through the cuts, the faculty said, students and families will be paying more for less.

At the same time, NU is seeking to be invited back into the elite Association of American Universities, a collection of 65 leading research universities. UNL had been a member for 102 years before being the first university voted out in 2011.

Schleck said the AAU looks heavily at research prowess, but cuts will immediately impact faculty’s ability to do research as they take on more work through personnel losses.

State funding has slowed

This spring, NU requested a 3% annual increase in state appropriations and the Legislature granted a 2.5% increase. Gov. Jim Pillen, a former regent himself, initially proposed a 2% increase.

Pillen’s office did not immediately respond to an email Friday.

However, State Sen. Rob Clements of Elmwood, who chairs the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said the committee has worked with NU President Carter who is “satisfied” with the funding levels. Final cuts are due to Carter by Dec. 1.

“I believe we’re adequately funding the university,” he said.

Avilés said faculty are organizing a petition to the regents and Appropriations Committee requesting they do more to mitigate the impacts of cuts. Clements said any requests to alter the budget in 2024 will require justification of the need.

Lee said NU appreciates the increased funding that Pillen and the Legislature approved, including millions for a new rural health facility in Kearney.

“But as President Carter has committed to our elected leaders, it is the university’s responsibility, not the taxpayer’s, to right-size our spending in light of our enrollment declines,” she said.

‘We’re going to give back’

Schleck said higher education is on a path to simply serve as advanced job training, even as employers emphasize skills learned in humanities.

Grams said she wants state leaders to know that when they invest in NU — with a $9 return on investment for every state dollar — they’re investing in the state’s people of the future.

“We really care about academic excellence. We really care about quality education,” Grams said. “And if our state’s going to thrive, we feel like the university needs to thrive with it and that we’re going to give back to you.”

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: info@nebraskaexaminer.com. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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