LINCOLN — Size matters when it comes to the future success of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Chancellor Harvey Perlman said Tuesday in his annual State of the University speech.
A bigger UNL would offer more opportunities and services for students, he said.
It would give UNL more clout among its much bigger Big Ten peers. And it would help the state attract and retain more young and talented people for its workforce.
In his 45-minute address, Perlman reiterated the goal he set last year, to boost UNL's enrollment to 30,000 students — a 20 percent increase in students — by 2017.
He garnered laughs when he wrapped up his speech with video of Larry the Cable Guy — Nebraska native Dan Whitney — pronouncing “Git-R-Done” in a rapid-fire montage of clips.
Afterward, faculty and administrators said they intend to get it done, if it's possible.
“Absolutely, it's something faculty supports. It would lead to growth and more faculty hiring for the benefit of our students,” said Rigoberto Guevara, associate professor of Spanish and president-elect of the UNL Faculty Senate. “We're definitely ready to go out and get it done, though at the moment it seems a steep climb.”
Guevara said it would be a challenge for his modern languages department to absorb more students. Enrollment there has doubled over the last decade while faculty numbers have decreased.
“The skeleton crew we have right now is barely keeping up with demand,” he said.
Political science professor John Hibbing said the enrollment goal is worth shooting for.
“We're in a new comparison group with the Big Ten, and we just don't have the population base that other states do, even Iowa. We've got to scramble, and we have to try to do some of the things they do — and that means getting bigger, hopefully without losing some of the personality we have.”
UNL saw a 1.6 percent decline in enrollment this year, the result of a declining number of Nebraska high school graduates as well as the departure of record-high UNL graduation classes over the past two years.
Nebraska high school graduations declined to about 21,000 this year and aren't expected to begin growing again until 2015-16.
“We need to relentlessly pursue every Nebraska high school graduate,” Perlman told faculty, staff, students and others.
But UNL won't achieve its goals solely by recruiting Nebraska students, he acknowledged. It also will have to attract more students from other states and from other countries. Improved retention and graduation rates — which reflect more students staying to complete their degrees, instead of dropping out — also will be needed.
The initiative focuses on undergraduate students. After his speech, Perlman added that he expected most of the enrollment increase to come in UNL's three major areas of growth: business, engineering and agriculture.
Though he didn't mention recently revealed plans for a new $84 million College of Business Administration building, he said that building is a critical component of enrollment growth. The building proposal is to be considered by the Board of Regents on Friday.
The business college saw a 25 percent increase in the number of first-time freshmen this fall. Dean Donde Plowman said she expects the college's enrollment to grow from its current 3,500 students to 5,000.
“To be really competitive in the Big Ten, we need to be bigger,” she said.
UNL faces a $6 million budget deficit this year because of cost increases and last year's enrollment dip.
Perlman said UNL administrators have decided to treat the deficit as a short-term cash flow problem because of their confidence that UNL will, by next fall, see a significant enrollment increase. The gap will be covered by handing out smaller raises this year than authorized by the regents, and with across-the-board cuts of one-half percent.
Though he usually prefers targeted cuts, in this case Perlman said he wants to emphasize that “with regard to the enrollment goal, we are all in this together.”
Indeed, once the shortfall is corrected, Perlman pledged that some of the revenue growth from higher enrollment would be used to boost the budgets of high-priority programs and academic departments that contribute to growth.
After the speech, Perlman said the details have yet to be worked out.
“It's not an easy thing to develop, but there will be a transparent set of incentives allowing departments to get returns for their efforts.”
He said he does not envision “every single professor going out and knocking on students' doors,” but faculty members are a key part of attracting and retaining students.
Other highlights of the speech:
» Ground will be broken this month on the Innovation Campus, the public-private research campus planned for the former state fairgrounds. Perlman announced no private-sector tenants for the park, but he said: “We are hopeful that will come soon. I will say our interactions with several multinational companies have been very positive.”
» Perlman has established a small group of faculty and administrators to study the potential for MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — at UNL. A number of prestigious universities offer the free, noncredit courses online.
» UNL will issue a request for proposals today for an outside vendor to build a new student health center on campus and assume responsibility for its operation. Privatization might help control student health care costs and avoid a student fee increase to replace the existing facility, which he said was outdated.
» UNL has received “favorable responses” from private developers to build housing atop a parking garage under construction at 18th and R Streets. The idea arose from the construction of private apartments on top of a new city parking garage in downtown Lincoln.
» Hiring of a new career services director is being delayed while administrators study the best way to structure the office. While he remains committed to a central office for career services, Perlman noted that many students receive considerable career guidance from their academic colleges.
» Administrative offices have been reorganized to better manage functions relating to enrollment growth. The appearance of UNL's campuses — both its buildings and its landscape — is being reviewed as part of efforts to attract more students.
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