LINCOLN — Fifty-five miles and two distinct cultures separate the University of Nebraska's engineering campuses in downtown Lincoln and midtown Omaha.
Now a proposal to merge the two similar programs has stirred some of the 40-year-old Lincoln-Omaha rivalries that prompted the establishment of the Omaha program.
Those fears have led some to suggest it's time for an independent college of engineering in Omaha, a move university leaders in Lincoln would fight.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Engineering Dean Tim Wei has proposed merging the electrical engineering program in Lincoln with the computer and electronics engineering (CEEN) program offered at Omaha's Kiewit Institute.
A merger, he said, would give Omaha students another degree option and eliminate duplicative courses on the two campuses. It would also free faculty to develop new classes, conduct research and guide graduate students.
Wei was recruited last year to help UNL boost its engineering game to better compete with the elite engineering schools of the Big Ten — and thus boost enrollment. The Engineering College has a goal of increasing student numbers by 30 percent over the next five years, part of UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman's overall goal of reaching 30,000 students by 2017. This fall's enrollment was 24,207.
But students, faculty and industry advisers to Omaha's targeted computer engineering program fear that the merger would cost them what they gained when the Kiewit Institute was established in 1999: an autonomous program closely allied with Omaha industry, conveniently located for Omaha students.
They're afraid that their program might be shortchanged if run by Lincoln administrators and that its culture of student-industry collaboration could erode.
UNL's engineering school ranks 85th among undergraduate programs in the latest U.S. News & World Report ratings, last among Big Ten programs. Three Big Ten engineering programs — at Illinois, Michigan and Purdue — are in the top 10.
Wei, hired from the prestigious engineering program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., argues that the merger would be a first step toward improving UNL's ranking.
His effort is backed not only by Perlman but also by prominent Omaha alumni on the Engineering College's advisory board. Supporters include officials with Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc., whose chairman emeritus, Walter Scott Jr., was a major leader of the effort to develop the Kiewit Institute.
“The goal is that every student in the College of Engineering feels like they are part of the same College of Engineering — regardless of where they lay their head at night,” Wei said.
“My line from Day One has been that we have to stop talking about the Lincoln-Omaha problem ... and start looking at Lincoln-Omaha opportunities.”
Easier said than done.
The campus rivalry dates to the early 1970s, a few years after the former Omaha University merged with the NU system to become UNO. University leaders decided to transfer Omaha's engineering programs to UNL management, the start of a strange system in which UNO-based students enrolled in engineering classes taught by UNL.
As the years passed, the Lincoln-based programs grew while the Omaha programs dwindled. Omaha stakeholders saw a deliberate, 25-year effort to starve Omaha and fatten Lincoln, a team of outside reviewers observed in 1992.
In the mid-1990s, Omaha business leaders mounted an intense campaign that resulted in the Kiewit Institute, a $70 million effort largely financed through Omaha-based philanthropy. A $40 million building was constructed to house new computer technology programs tailored to the needs of industry.
It is within that context that UNL faculty member Bing Chen and his supporters view Wei's merger proposal. Chen was a leader in the 1990s fight and became chairman of the new CEEN department.
It was a position he held until Sept. 5, when Wei removed him, in part because of Chen's resistance to the merger.
Chen said he fears that CEEN's curriculum will be diluted and it will lose the personal connections that make it so responsive to the Omaha business community.
“Why would you want to take a successful department and destroy something that has worked well?” he said.
Chen's concerns are shared by Rick Gregg, founder and vice president of Prism Technologies, and John Smith, a vice president at THG Benefits, who serve on CEEN's industry advisory board.
They worry that a merged program would create graduates who are less prepared for the Omaha workforce.
“The program has been very successful in placing students,” Smith said. “They graduate with the equivalent of one to two years of experience.”
Gregg said Lincoln's program has “more of a research component to it. It prepares folks for Ph.D. studies. It's not the same curriculum.”
Smith and Gregg are leading an effort to ask the NU Board of Regents early next year to establish a separate Omaha engineering college.
They point to a 1995 letter from then-NU President L. Dennis Smith to top Omaha business leaders in which Smith said he would reconsider a stand-alone engineering college in Omaha if enrollment exceeded 300 students. The Omaha campus now has 800.
The situation has drawn the attention of regent-elect Hal Daub who, as Omaha mayor, played a part in establishing the Kiewit Institute. He doesn't yet have enough information to support one action or another, he said, but he is concerned.
“I don't want this to be a parochial battle between Lincoln and Omaha,” he said. “We resolved that, I thought, in the engineering areas some years ago.”
UNO leaders said that they have not been involved and that this would be a decision for NU President J.B. Milliken, the Board of Regents and UNL leaders.
Milliken and UNL's Perlman take a fairly dim view of separate engineering colleges.
“It is unnecessary to create a whole new college administrative structure simply because we have faculty and offer programs at more than one location,” Milliken said. “We are usually urged to think of ways to reduce administrative overhead, not increase it.”
He said other programs have effectively delivered services on multiple campuses, such as the NU Medical Center's College of Nursing, administered in Omaha but operated at five locations across the state.
Perlman said it would take the combined resources of Lincoln and Omaha to establish a “vibrant” UNL College of Engineering. He also said the restructuring plans are being vetted by people who have historically advocated for engineering in Omaha.
“Attempts by others to resist any change by raising old controversies between Lincoln and Omaha may serve their own interests but certainly not the interests of Omaha or Nebraska,” Perlman said.
Michael McGinnis, the Kiewit Institute's executive director, said the merger could benefit the Omaha campus by adding a third degree program, electrical engineering, to those already offered: computer engineering and electronics engineering. The institute's responsiveness to Omaha business depends on how the merger is implemented, he said.
“You'd like to have as strong a department as you can in the eyes of the Big Ten and other schools. From that perspective, (merger) is a very good step forward,” McGinnis said.
Engineering students in Omaha worry they will be forced to ride buses to attend some classes in Lincoln, that key courses or even the electronics major will be eliminated, and that they will lose the close-knit, workforce-oriented atmosphere they enjoy.
A Facebook page calling for a CEEN “revival” has garnered nearly 240 friends.
“We love the program. We don't want it to go away,” said Margaux Hoaglund, leader of student opposition to the merger.
Tim Struble-Larsen, a senior electronics engineering and physics major, said he spent three years studying in Lincoln before transferring to the Omaha program.
“I was not happy at all with Lincoln,” he said. “I came up here, and the environment was so different. I literally fell in love with it.”
Perlman, however, said the merger would result in more services for students.
“Electronics engineering will continue,” he said, “and we will add electrical engineering in Omaha — a program that will create significant opportunities.”
Electrical engineering is a broader discipline that includes the study and application of electricity, electronics and electromagnetism. It is somewhat unusual for university programs to offer a sole major in electronics engineering, a narrower and more specialized field.
Wei's merger plan is enthusiastically backed by several key leaders and prominent Nebraska engineering alumni, including Joe Lempka, who works for Kiewit; Kenneth West of DLR Group in Omaha; Roger Helgoth of Kirkham Michael in Omaha; and Robert Brightfelt of Lake Forest, Ill., who founded an international company that produces hospital laboratory equipment.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the approach Tim (Wei) is taking at this time will strengthen the program in Omaha,” Brightfelt said.
The current structure is often awkward, sometimes duplicative and confusing for students and their families.
At the Kiewit Institute, for example, UNO provides information science and technology courses and UNL provides engineering courses.
Engineering students are enrolled through UNO and go through commencement at UNO but earn a UNL degree. They pay UNO tuition rates for non-engineering classes and UNL's higher tuition for engineering coursework.
“We have a huge problem with our UNO students,” Wei said. “They don't know who they are.”
One way the dean hopes to close that gap is by working to offer football tickets to UNL's engineering students in Omaha. He also hopes plans to develop “NU View” technology — distance classrooms offering 360-degree virtual views of students from both campuses — will help make students and instructors feel as if they're learning together.
And those buses? Wei said students most frequently will be traveling from Lincoln to Omaha for an innovative new “Real World” class where Omaha business leaders will teach students the skills needed in the workplace.
Wei said a final decision on a merger has yet to be made.
Faculty in both departments are reviewing the proposal, and Lincoln electrical engineering faculty plan to meet this week with CEEN faculty.
Wei said that when he was hired, he was given a mandate: to bring greatness to UNL engineering.
“I would love for us to be the first College of Engineering (in Nebraska) where everybody felt like they were part of a community and a shared vision,” he said, “where everybody worked together and everybody gave a rip about everybody else.”
About the Peter Kiewit Institute
What is it? The Peter Kiewit Information Science, Technology and Engineering Institute opened in 1999, after Omaha business and industry leaders pushed for engineering training tailored to their needs. The Kiewit Institute does not have academic standing or confer degrees. It is currently undergoing renovations to add research space.
Where is it? South of 67th and Pacific Streets, the first building on what is now the South Campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Who runs it? Executive Director Michael McGinnis, who reports to NU President J.B. Milliken and to the NU Provost's Office. McGinnis works with the deans of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln-based College of Engineering and UNO's College of Information Science and Technology.
What does it house? UNL engineering programs; UNO information science and technology programs; the Holland Computing Center, with supercomputers used in academic research; and the nonprofit PKI Technology Development Corp., which helps form businesses based on academic discoveries.
What engineering programs are offered there? Architectural, construction, civil, computer (all of which are also offered in Lincoln), and electronics (offered only in Omaha). More than 800 UNL engineering students attend classes at the Kiewit Institute, while about 1,900 attend classes in Lincoln.
Contact the writer: 402-473-9581, email@example.com