The University of Nebraska, now celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding in 1869, has commendably built on a solid foundation by early academic leaders. Let’s look at some important continuities that link today’s achievements to the pioneering work by NU figures who came before.
» Agriculture: Land-grant universities were intended to be close to the people, directly supporting the public’s needs, President Abraham Lincoln said in signing the Morrill Act, which established these centers of learning. Charles E. Bessey, the botanist and administrator who brought the university’s botanical and horticultural study into national prominence in the late 1800s, championed that land-grant vision. “Science with practice,” he called it. NU had a key obligation to pursue high-level agricultural research, Bessey said, and then to help Nebraska producers understand the practical application of the findings.
In the 21st century, the agricultural and natural resources programs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln pursue that goal in a variety of ways. UNL conducts on-site research through its research and extension centers and other facilities across the state. The university’s research is internationally respected on such topics as drought-resistant crops and water science.
NU was an early leader in establishing Extension services, and UNL Extension each year delivers a wide range of clinics on subjects including irrigation efficiency, crop management and insect control, ranching practices and educational programs for children regarding water resource sustainability and nutrition. Extension programming last year helped more than 8,500 Nebraska producers study water and soil protection programming. One in three age-eligible boys and girls in Nebraska belong to 4-H clubs, which are under the UNL Extension umbrella.
» Science: DeWitt B. Brace founded NU’s department of physics in the 1880s. He gained international attention by the turn of the 20th century for his pioneering studies of the velocity of light. In the 21st century, UNL is home to one of the world’s most advanced high-intensity lasers, the Diocles Laser. Donald Umstadter relocated from the University of Michigan in 2005 to head a team of scientists for the laser project, whose basic research can have practical applications on needs ranging from medical use to homeland security technology.
Among UNL’s many other notable scientific successes is the robotic work by engineering professor Shane Farritor, who has partnered with the University of Nebraska Medical Center to develop miniature surgical robots — a project that has received $18 million in venture capital for commercialization, with the aim to enable less-invasive general surgeries. The resulting company, Virtual Incision, is headquartered at NU’s Innovation Campus.
» Humanities: NU alumna and Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather is one of our country’s most noted 20th-century authors. As recently reported in The World-Herald, UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities provides an enormous online storage and analysis resource for archival materials. The archives stretch over a vast range of humanities topics, including materials on Cather, poet Walt Whitman, the Lewis and Clark expedition, Nebraska Poet Laureate John G. Neihardt (who held an honorary doctorate and a nonteaching chair from NU) and texts of American Indian treaties and related documents.
» Military science: John J. Pershing was a professor of military science at NU from 1891 to 1895 and received his law degree there in 1896. He commanded U.S. forces during World War I and is one of the most familiar names in U.S. military history. A century after that “war to end all wars” concluded, NU has a strong partnership with the Pentagon to conduct advanced security-related research through the university’s National Strategic Research Institute — one of only 13 such university-affiliated research centers in the country. The 84 research projects include pursuit of next-generation vaccines for anthrax and infectious diseases; laser technologies (through the Diocles project) to detect hidden or camouflaged explosives and civil engineering research to strengthen entry points to military bases.
On all these fronts, the University of Nebraska is impressively carrying the legacy of its early leaders into the future, to the benefit of Nebraska and our nation.