The writer is chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
In the context of a national shortage of engineering graduates — as well as other scientific and technology graduates — states and cities will have a competitive advantage if they can attract a well-qualified engineering and scientific work force. This is why the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has made enhancing and expanding engineering education in Nebraska a high priority and why we will continue to do so.
Being competitive in engineering education depends on the ability to attract talented students and faculty. Enrollment and research growth in engineering are critical — not only for the university but for the economy of Nebraska. The key issue is how we can best create a competitive advantage in this difficult national environment by building on the assets we now have in place.
In 2012, UNL was successful in attracting Dean Timothy Wei to lead the College of Engineering, and he is building a strategic plan for enhancing engineering education in both Lincoln and Omaha. He has presented the conceptual framework to the Board of Regents and to interested parties. He will soon demonstrate how the university intends to implement that plan over the next few years.
To be successful, however, we will need to better employ the assets we have in Lincoln and Omaha and to create a strong and more seamless college that spans both cities and responds to the specific interests of both communities and the state as a whole.
Unfortunately, the current discussion over engineering education in Omaha has raised questions of whether UNL can be trusted to make investments in Omaha and whether Omaha is somehow disadvantaged by not having its own independent engineering college. I’d like to address these two issues.
In 1995, with the formation of the Peter Kiewit Institute, UNL agreed to enhance engineering education in Omaha. At that time, Civil Engineering, with 102 students, was the only engineering degree offered in Omaha. All other programs, with 553 students, were non-engineering technology degrees. No graduate degrees were offered.
Today, Omaha-based students can receive undergraduate engineering degrees in Civil, Architectural, Computer and Electronics, and Construction Engineering as well as Construction Management. Most offer graduate instruction as well. Today, 600 students are enrolled in programs leading to a degree in engineering, 94 in construction management and 108 in pre- engineering courses in Omaha.
In 1995, there was little if any funded research in engineering in Omaha. Since then, Omaha- based faculty have produced approximately $13 million in funded research.
These enhancements resulted because UNL made Omaha- based programs a priority. Since 1995, the state-aided budget — tax and tuition only — for Omaha- based engineering programs has increased 203 percent, while the state-aided budget for Lincoln programs increased 114 percent. Since 1995, the number of faculty in Omaha- based programs has increased by 25 percent, compared with an 0.6 percent decline in faculty in Lincoln-based programs.
So how is Omaha positioned to be competitive among similarly sized cities? Omaha is the 58th-largest metropolitan area in the country. Of the 70 largest metropolitan areas, Omaha is one of only 38 that has an accredited college of engineering ranked in the top 100 by U.S. News and World Report. (UNL is No. 85, a significant improvement over prior rankings.) Twenty-one of the 70 largest metropolitan areas have no accredited college of engineering. Twelve of the largest 50 have no engineering college ranked in U.S. News’ Top 150.
In the 20 areas most comparable to Omaha — populations between 750,000 and 1 million people — Omaha is one of only nine with a Top 100 college of engineering, and of these Omaha is the only city in the Midwest with a college ranked in the Top 150.
College rankings are important in attracting students and faculty. Omaha and Nebraska are well positioned to leverage UNL’s entry into the Big Ten, a conference known for its strong engineering schools, to attract the student and faculty talent necessary to enhance our competitiveness.
UNL has every internal incentive to continue to build its Omaha-based programs to reach our enrollment and research goals and to serve economic development. We have every incentive to respond to the demonstrated needs of the private sector in Omaha as well as the rest of the state. But with the resources we have, to do so will require us to work smarter, more creatively and more efficiently.
For example, our proposal to merge Computer and Electronics Engineering into Electrical Engineering was designed to better use existing resources by reducing redundancy so we could add electrical engineering programs in Omaha.
The challenge of attracting young people to careers in engineering and science is national in scope. Our goal should be no less than to lead the nation in this effort. Working together, there is nothing Nebraska cannot achieve.