February 9, 2016

NU officials, constituents testify in support of building plan

NU system President Hank Bounds

University of Nebraska system President Hank Bounds and key NU constituents testified Feb. 9 before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee in support of a proposal to extend a state-university partnership on building renovation and renewal projects across the system’s four universities.

The proposal, endorsed unanimously by the NU Board of Regents in December, is sponsored by Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley in LB858. It would continue a partnership that began almost 20 years ago and has resulted in updated classrooms, labs and offices that have played a critical role in student success and academic excellence.

The state and university system currently make matching annual investments of $11 million in deferred maintenance projects. Under LB858, both partners would increase their annual investments by $11 million to finance a $400 million bond. The bond funds would be available for renovation projects across the university that were selected through a strategic, data-driven process.

In testimony submitted to the Appropriations Committee, Bounds thanked Hadley for his leadership and support and said, “the need for quality, modern, functional buildings is as important today as it has ever been. We are operating in the most competitive higher education marketplace of our lifetimes … To fulfill our responsibility to meet the needs of the state, we have to put ourselves in a position to be competitive in the current environment. That means providing quality facilities.”

Bounds highlighted an independent analysis of the university’s impact on the state, which found that NU’s teaching, research and outreach activities grow Nebraska’s economy by $3.9 billion a year. Sustaining an impact of that magnitude requires a proactive approach, he said, noting that deferred maintenance needs can’t be ignored.

The total cost to bring all NU buildings to “like new” condition would exceed $1.1 billion. The university system’s proposal, which would address less than 40 percent of that total, recognizes the state’s limited resources while seeking investments that would allow the university to remain competitive, Bounds said.

“We knew we had to be focused and strategic with the limited funding available,” he said. “The goal was to get the most ‘bang for our buck,’ so we identified renovation projects that would best serve students and faculty, advance university goals and meet important state needs, like undergraduate education, research and STEM programs.”

Bounds said an analysis by Jerry Deichert, director of the Center for Public Affairs Research at UNO, found that the university’s proposed renovation projects would result in significant economic activity. The projects would yield $640 million in total economic output and support 5,200 jobs, among other results.

The university system would meet its investments through four years of dedicated 1 percent tuition increases. The increases, which would amount to about $2 more per credit hour annually for a Nebraska undergraduate, would not change NU’s competitive position with regard to cost.

Bounds said an NU education remains a great value; tuition at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for example, is 50 percent below the average of Big Ten public institutions. Additionally, because Nebraska students who are eligible for a federal Pell Grant already have their full tuition costs covered through the Collegebound Nebraska financial aid program, students with the greatest need would not be impacted by any tuition increase.

“Our partnership in keeping facilities up-to-date represents a proactive, sustainable, strategic and proven approach,” Bounds said in asking policymakers to continue to help maintain NU buildings, which make up 70 percent of the state’s net total building assets. “When it comes to our success, facilities matter.”

Bounds was joined at today’s Appropriations Committee hearing by Shelby Williby, a UNL sophomore chemical engineering major. UNL’s engineering complex is among the facilities targeted for renovation, given the university’s ambitious goals to grow engineering enrollment to meet critical workforce needs.

“I think if you ask any student, they would tell you that modern learning spaces are incredibly important, not only when it comes to their choice of college but also for their education,” Williby said. “If our facilities are outdated, we risk not being as prepared for the workforce as we need to be.”

Other constituents also contributed letters of support for LB858, including faculty and student leaders and external university supporters.

For more information on the university’s building renewal proposal, including a video, list of priority renovation projects and other materials, click here.