LINCOLN — The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is not the same school as it was at the start of this century, Chancellor Harvey Perlman said Tuesday in his State of the University speech.
UNL is now “comfortably” a part of the Big Ten. The campus has grown, in both its footprint with new buildings and its academic offerings. Looking back from the future, Perlman said, this time can be seen as one from which high expectations brought unprecedented results.
“Our goal should be no less than that when the next history of the university is written, it will be the beginning of the 21st century, not the turn of the 20th, that is regarded as our golden age, when we regained our rightful place among the leading universities in the country,” Perlman said.
To accomplish that goal, Perlman said in the speech delivered at the Lied Center, it's time to do the work to increase UNL's student population to 30,000 and increase its pool of tenure-track faculty.
Continuing to boost the university's enrollment is among Perlman's priorities. Last week, enrollment numbers showed an overall increase of just 1 percent over 2012, to 24,445 students. The university would need to increase enrollment by an average of 1,388 students annually to hit its goal.
“Frankly, I underestimated the infrastructure we would have to build and the level of new activities we would have to undertake in order to move the enrollment needle,” Perlman said.
But he said the necessary investments have been made, and the goal is now to improve retention, graduation rates and online education. Increasing the number of tenure-track faculty will also boost UNL's profile in research, Perlman said.
The university's research reputation took a hit in 2011 when it was the first college to be voted out of the prestigious Association of American Universities.
Ken Nickerson, a professor of biological sciences and president-elect of the Faculty Senate, said he's been impressed with UNL's recruiting efforts since the growth goal was announced.
Though overall enrollment growth was 1 percent, the freshman class grew by 12 percent. That's an important measure for faculty, Nickerson said, because enrollment growth and the number of tenure-track professors are tied.
“We get more students, we use the money to increase the faculty, and that can only be good,” Nickerson said.
He was also pleased that Perlman recognized the infrastructure deficiencies, something Nickerson said has been a problem for a decade in the science buildings where lab space is scarce.
“This doesn't mean there won't be bumps, but I think the chancellor has a good long-term vision and he's acting on it,” Nickerson said.
Perlman will have to first contend with a hole in this year's budget he estimated to be about $3.5 million, which includes a $2 million deficit carried over from last year and $570,000 in increased operating costs for new buildings.
He told faculty, staff and students at the Lied Center that the small enrollment increase will make up some of the deficit.
But some budget cuts and “reallocations” may be needed to put the university in the black.
It's too soon to know what the revenue stream looks like and what cuts, if any, will occur, Perlman said. But he hopes to find “permanent reductions as far from the academic enterprise as possible” that will help him cut costs.
“I don't want to carry it (the deficit) forward,” Perlman said. “It does restrain your ability to make investments in where you need to go so we're going to take a really good, hard look at trying to solve it in the course of the year.”
A 3 percent salary increase pool has been budgeted for faculty and staff.
Perlman also announced plans for deans to work with faculty members to better assess their time apportionment, and how well their teaching time versus research time fits with the university's advancement goals.
Perlman described the plan as a healthy way to better evaluate the work of faculty and the best way to ensure their job performance expectations are in line with their plans and passions.
Also on the list of priorities for Perlman: moving forward with the Innovation Campus now under construction, and capitalizing on the engineering school's dual locations in Lincoln and Omaha. The chancellor mentioned specifically the Peter Kiewit Institute as a unique opportunity, and said the best interests of the university, Omaha and the state are served by smart investments in both locations.
The future of the institute is scheduled for discussion during Friday's Board of Regents meeting.
“We cannot be distracted by the few who would raise old Lincoln-Omaha tensions,” Perlman said.