What steps should the University of Nebraska take to build on its important connections to Nebraska agriculture? What can NU do to contain its costs? How fast should it push development of Innovation Campus? What is the appropriate salary to offer to attract a capable new chancellor for the University of Nebraska Medical Center?
Those questions are among the key challenges facing NU's eight-member Board of Regents. Voters re-elected one incumbent (Bob Whitehouse) and chose three new members for that board (Hal Daub, Lavon Heidemann and Jim Pillen).
It's an appropriate time, then, to look at the role of the regents and examine major issues facing Nebraska's public university system, a $2.3 billion institution with four main campuses.
Whitehouse, the three new members and the rest of the board need to provide overall policy direction, but they should be careful not to intrude into the proper responsibilities of NU President J.B. Milliken and the four chancellors. Regents are not micromanagers.
Among the issues ahead:
>> Agricultural/rural development. Pillen is a veterinarian and president of a large hog operation, while Heidemann is a farmer. Both have understandably called for NU to pay great attention to the state's agricultural needs.
There is a lot to be encouraged about on that topic. Under the leadership of Vice Chancellor Ronnie Green, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources is showing real energy and pursuing an impressive array of opportunities. One new venture is the Rural Futures Institute, through which a host of Nebraska organizations will work together to help rural communities.
>> Enrollment goals. NU aims to boost its student population by 10,000 students over a decade. This would put UNL at 30,000 students by 2017 and make the University of Nebraska at Omaha a school of 20,000 by 2020. Reaching those numbers will mean, in considerable measure, targeting out-of-state students as well as those from abroad.
>> Four-year graduation goal. One of the most discouraging problems for universities nationwide is the difficulty in bringing students to graduation within four years. NU regents, to their credit, have targeted this problem and overseen some sensible changes such as structuring academic programs to avoid undue course requirements. NU will need to keep working on this ongoing challenge.
>> Innovation Campus. This ambitious long-term project on the former State Fair property in Lincoln will connect NU research in areas such as agriculture, water and alternative energy with government and private-sector institutions. Nebraska-based ConAgra Foods has become the first private partner as the research campus gains momentum.
>> Technology transfer. NU has made good decisions in strengthening its ability to commercialize its research. Well-structured technology transfer entities are now in place at each NU campus. This is an area of growing importance for the university.
>> New chancellor for UNMC. This decision next year towers as one of the central ones for the regents. Chancellor Harold Maurer has helped guide UNMC to spectacular success. The chancellor's job is a challenging one: part manager, part strategic planner, part fundraiser, part diplomat. It is crucial to find a successor who will keep the forward movement going.
>> Transparency. NU hurt itself this year with the funding-request surprises involving the planned UNMC cancer center. It should learn a lesson.
>> Niche-building. NU is doing a good job on this score, with its initiatives on water and food, early childhood studies and rural development. It should keep building on those.
>> Funding. The Nebraska Legislature and Gov. Dave Heineman have provided strong financial support for the university, but big fiscal challenges for the state remain. It's a national pattern; state support as a percentage of university budgets is declining in many places. Limits on state funding will be a large factor for the NU regents as they face tough decisions on budgeting, capital construction and tuition.
All Nebraskans share a mutual interest in seeing the state's public university system maximize its potential. And the regents are key players.