Leaders of the University of Nebraska system have unveiled a bold plan to reimagine the Cornhusker State’s public university system during one of the most significant periods of change and challenge in the history of higher education.
Announced June 22 by Ted Carter, president of the NU system, the plan is in response to a May directive issued by the Board of Regents to build a strategy for a balanced budget while enhancing the university system’s competitiveness in research, faculty pay, and student recruitment and success.
The NU system faces an estimated $58 million shortfall by the end of the 2024-25 fiscal year, a gap brought on by inflation, muted revenue growth and enrollment declines. That figure represents only what it would take to maintain the system’s current status quo; in other words, it leaves nothing for new strategic investments.
At a special meeting to review NU’s fiscal planning, regents rejected the historical approach of spreading budget reductions across the board, saying that risked weakening the entire system. Rather, the board directed Carter to chart a new path of setting system-wide priorities and redeploying dollars accordingly.
The plan Carter announced today includes both short- and long-term action steps to close the budget gap and free up additional resources to transform the University of Nebraska system into a more competitive, collaborative, efficient and flexible institution. The 2023-24 NU operating budget approved by the Board of Regents, including a modest 3.5 percent tuition increase and investments in salaries and financial aid, lays the groundwork for Carter’s plan.
“The University of Nebraska is more important than ever to the economic growth and well-being of our state. We must find ways to reinvent ourselves so we continue to meet Nebraskans’ needs well into the future,” Carter said. “As the Board of Regents has made clear, given the challenges in front of us, business as usual is no longer sustainable.
“We have hard work ahead, but Nebraskans expect us to compete in all facets. My vision is that the University of Nebraska will be the most dynamic university in the country. This plan will help us get there.”
Carter announced the following short-term steps, effective July 1, to help preserve cash while longer-term strategies are implemented:
A hiring freeze on all non-faculty positions. Administrative positions that come open may not be refilled without approval from the Office of the President. Managerial/professional and office/service positions may not be refilled without approval from the relevant campus chancellor.
A temporary 2.5 percent quarterly across-the-board rescission on all departmental operating and supply budgets.
Carter also announced a longer-term, five-point vision for excellence that will reimagine the University of Nebraska for the future and capture savings that can be reinvested in priorities like faculty salaries, world-class academic programs, student mental health, and others yet to be identified. Carter’s five-point plan includes:
Reinvigorated focus on student recruitment
This commitment includes a goal of reversing recent enrollment declines. Carter noted that strong and stable enrollment matters not only to the university’s bottom line, but is crucial to meeting the state’s workforce needs.
As part of his broad goal to ensure every Nebraska high school student is contacted by the University of Nebraska, Carter said he is launching two new efforts to “blanket the state” with university recruitment: a program that will provide stipends to current university students to visit their high school and engage with prospective students; and an in-state recruitment program that will send ambassadors to major events across the state.
Details and application information for both programs will be forthcoming.
Renewed commitment to raising NU’s academic profile
This commitment includes a specific goal of regaining entry into the Association of American Universities, a coalition of the nation’s most elite research institutions.
The University of Nebraska–Lincoln was one of the first 20 universities admitted into the AAU, but was removed in 2011. While acknowledging re-entry will require hard work, Carter said he will set metrics to measure the university’s progress against the AAU’s newly revised membership criteria, including federally funded research.
AAU membership, Carter said, would immediately raise the value of students’ degrees, make the university more competitive in faculty recruiting, and connect the university to greater research funding opportunities. Two-thirds of all federally funded research and development is conducted by AAU members.
Consistent with the goal to make Nebraska’s research enterprise more competitive, Carter is initiating a process to report University of Nebraska–Lincoln and University of Nebraska Medical Center research, along with the systemwide institutes, as a single unified figure. Aligned reporting, he said, will take full advantage of the breadth and scale of Nebraska’s two statewide research institutions. The University of Nebraska at Omaha and University of Nebraska at Kearney will continue to report separately.
“There’s a reason every other institution in the Big Ten except one, and three-quarters of public AAU institutions, are aligned with a medical school: The combined impact of a flagship university and an academic health science center can’t be matched,” Carter said. “Stronger alignment between our two institutions with a statewide reach and mission will benefit both, and will make our entire university and state more competitive.
“We must be unafraid to say that we want to be counted among the very best universities in the country.”
Combined reporting will have an immediate impact: In total research and development funding, Nebraska would advance from 87th (UNL’s current ranking) to about 55th in the nation. In federally funded R&D, Nebraska vaults from 117th to about 66th.
More proactive process for reviewing NU’s range of academic programs
The university currently conducts academic program reviews on a seven-year rotation. Carter has directed the creation of a dashboard to more proactively measure academic programs against the minimum performance standards set by the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education. The dashboard will allow the university to spot early warning signs and act accordingly.
Additionally, Carter has tasked Dr. Jeffrey P. Gold, executive vice president and provost, with forming a working group to evaluate programs offered by multiple campuses for opportunities for collaboration.
New strategies for communication and transparency around budget planning
To ensure that the university community is engaged and informed, Carter will stand up a “University Council” that will include the vice presidents, chancellors, deans, faculty senate presidents and student body presidents. The council will meet quarterly to hear updates and share ideas. Carter also will launch a monthly webinar open to all members of the university community to provide updates and answer questions about the budget and strategic planning.
Carter also is creating an incentive program that will provide monetary awards to faculty and staff who suggest ideas that will create savings or new revenue for the university. Details will be announced soon.
Focus on operational excellence
In recent years the university has unified its information technology, procurement and facilities functions, saving more than $25 million and allowing academic programs to be protected. Carter noted a number of other business and administrative functions remain distributed across the system, including payroll, accounting, budget, compliance, benefits, human resources, government relations, and public relations and communications.
“We need to ask ourselves, and I think Nebraska taxpayers expect us to ask, are we missing opportunities to take advantage of our scale and operate more efficiently,” Carter said.
Carter has tasked Chris Kabourek, senior vice president and chief financial officer, with leading a review to determine the most effective and efficient approach for operational areas that remain decentralized. Additionally, Carter has tasked Kabourek to form a team to immediately launch a zero-based budget exercise for all units across the university except the academic colleges to ensure that every position and every expenditure is justified.
Noting that the university does not have the luxury of time to capture savings and redeploy dollars to priorities, Carter said he expects the various reviews outlined in his five-point plan to be completed no later than Dec. 31, with strategies implemented by June 30, 2025.
Regents strongly endorsed the new approach.
“It’s an exciting vision that I’ve not heard articulated at the University of Nebraska. That’s exciting to me,” said Tim Clare, board chairman, of Lincoln. “It’s the kind of bold thinking we need if we’re going to have a strong, growing, competitive university… I think when we get to the other side of this process, we will be the university that is creating the blueprint for what higher education reform should look like.”
Rob Schafer, vice chairman, of Beatrice, said it should be every student’s dream to earn a degree from Nebraska U.
“I’m excited that we’re going to get out and recruit, retain and reward these students,” Schafer said.
Jack Stark, regent, of Omaha, congratulated Carter on the plan, stating that, “it’s the most impressive document I’ve seen in 30, 40 years.”
“It’s clear, it’s decisive, it involves everyone,” said Jim Scheer, regent, of Norfolk. “I’m a believer.”
Kathy Wilmot, regent, of Beaver City, said her focus has been on educating kids, developing workforce opportunities and showing youth that they have a future in Nebraska — and she sees those elements within the five-point plan.
“I think the most important takeaway from this plan is that our primary focus continues to be on educating students and preparing them to pursue high-paying careers that require a degree,” said Elizabeth O’Connor, regent, of Omaha. “It’s an excellent plan and I think it’s one that the state deserves.”