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NU President Carter says university won’t ‘hit pause’ as he departs Nebraska

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NU President Carter says university won’t ‘hit pause’ as he departs Nebraska

Dec 01, 2023 | 8:28 pm ET
By Zach Wendling
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NU President Carter says university won’t ‘hit pause’ as he departs Nebraska
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University of Nebraska Regent Rob Schafer (board vice chair), NU President Ted Carter and Regent Tim Clare (board chair), from left to right, lead the final Board of Regents meeting of the year Dec. 1, 2023, in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — University of Nebraska President Ted Carter said Friday that NU must go beyond the status quo in addressing its budget cuts, as faculty and staff ask for more support.

Some critics have called for NU to “hit pause” on work to reimagine itself, Carter said. Others have said budget cuts totaling $58 million coming down the pike are “a cost we can’t afford.”

At the same time, Carter, the Board of Regents and other top NU officials have indicated rejoining the Association of American Universities is a top priority. The AAU is an elite group of top universities that UNL was the first to be kicked out of in 2011 by a vote of its members. It had belonged to the AAU since 1909.

In efforts to rejoin, NU’s Office of the President, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska Medical Center will report research expenditures to the National Science Foundation as a united force, which Carter said would instantly bring NU up in certain national rankings.

“When our two institutions with a statewide research mission work hand-in-hand, that rising tide lifts all boats,” Carter said.

However, the AAU goal has run afoul with some in the NU community in the face of reductions.

“You don’t cut your way into the AAU,” UNL Dean Mark Button said of budget cuts last month, according to UNL’s The Daily Nebraskan.

Carter said Friday that NU also can’t “status quo” its way back into the AAU.

“Nebraskans are generous in supporting their university, but taxpayers do not have bottomless wallets,” Carter said.

‘Full steam ahead’

Administrators at the University of Nebraska at Kearney have finalized plans for $4.3 million in academic and administrative cuts, while UNL faces $12 million in cuts separate from the $58 million being cut system-wide due to declining enrollment.

Carter asked leaders at each of NU’s campuses to submit the results of a zero-based budgeting process — designed as if the campuses had to start building their budgets from scratch — to him by Friday. While there has been no chance to review them or make decisions, Carter said, the work will continue after he leaves to helm The Ohio State University at year’s end.

“The work is too important not to be full steam ahead,” Carter said.

Chris Kabourek, NU’s chief financial officer, was unanimously approved Friday to serve as interim president, beginning Jan. 1. Kabourek isn’t in the running to be Carter’s permanent replacement

Carter said under Kabourek’s leadership, NU will move forward “without missing a beat.”

“We’ll do everything we can to set up the next president to be successful on Day One,” Kabourek told the regents.

Montessori early childhood education

However, Kabourek could hit a snag immediately. UNK faculty, staff, students and alumni criticized proposed cuts during Friday’s meeting, echoing the campus faculty union that earlier this week called for some funding to be restored.

Three areas of the proposed cuts took center stage Friday: ending UNK’s theater program, its Montessori early childhood education program and multiple modern language programs. 

UNK and NU spokespersons said the designated programs fall below minimum state standards of having at least seven graduates over a five-year average.

About 5.8 students graduate annually from the theater program while 0.6 graduate students per year earn a master’s degree with a concentration in Montessori, according to Todd Gottula, a UNK spokesperson. 

Kathie Sweet, interim director of UNK’s Montessori program, defended her discipline because it supplies credentialed teachers to Montessori schools in the country. The Montessori model is child-focused, with students working independently in self-paced but guided teachings.

Sweet said regents must consider the “lack of logic” behind cutting the program and should help meet the needs of Nebraska’s children and educators.

Four people enrolled in the Montessori program or trained in the discipline through UNK also urged NU to maintain the program for the sake of their schools that rely on the certification.

‘Misplaced cut’

Patsy Koch Johns, a member of the State Board of Education, defended the theater program in her personal capacity. She detailed her journey to UNK as someone who had never dreamed of college but later became a first-generation student who earned a degree in the fine arts.

Koch Johns encouraged the regents to consider the ripple effect that theater directors trained at UNK, such as herself, have when they go on to inspire other students.

“I think it is a misplaced cut,” Koch Johns said. “Instead of cutting, we should be nurturing so that other students, like me, will continue to have the opportunity to do something they never dreamed that they would be able to do.”

UNK is the first NU campus to finalize plans to deal with the $58 million shortfall, leaving just under $54 million still to go and likely more needed, Carter said, to go beyond the status quo.

“Excellence is a comprehensive effort,” Carter said. “Excellence is not a zero-sum game.”

Some faculty at ‘breaking point’

Separately, UNL faculty criticized what they described as a lack of transparency, academic freedom and shared governance surrounding the campus budget cuts. UNL Chancellor Rodney Bennett announced the proposals Nov. 8, and they were not updated with more specific information for two weeks.

Regina Werum, a UNL sociology professor, said that the cuts will directly impact the campus teaching mission and undercut research efforts required for AAU readmission — and that College of Arts and Sciences faculty are already at a “breaking point.”

Werum said even with an enrollment drop, which triggered the $12 million in cuts at UNL, students have growing needs. She said she also has to cover courses at the “edge of my expertise,” including classes UNL must offer to maintain its academic rating.

“This ‘let’s stomp on the faculty and tell them to do more with less’ approach is completely counterproductive,” Werum said. “Good luck with the Big Ten or the AAU when you cut graduate programs that feed the national pipeline in STEM and beyond.”

Sarah Zuckerman, an associate professor of education administration at UNL, criticized a lack of transparency in UNL’s budget cuts. She said the proposed cuts would leave some programs, such as hers, with no electives.

Zuckerman countered Carter’s remarks, stating that in her experience, efficiency and excellence are “diametrically opposed.”

All items on the regents’ agenda were approved, including: