Facing headwinds, higher education can’t be afraid to change course

January 23, 2023 3:00 am

A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is 1,090 feet long, displaces more than 100,000 tons of water and is powered by propellers the size of a two-story house. It carries 5,500 crew and 80 combat planes. Standing on the flight deck, you’re 60 feet above the waterline.

I’ve been privileged to see these vessels up close and personal. In my 38 years in the U.S. Navy, I flew off of 19 different aircraft carriers and was in charge of five carriers at sea as a captain and task force admiral.

I know how startling it can be to hear that for all its size and might, an aircraft carrier can make a 180-degree turn in less than three minutes.

Officially, my military career is over. But again and again in my three years as president of the University of Nebraska system, I have drawn on valuable lessons learned from my time in uniform – lessons about the importance of decisiveness, common-sense action and staying true to the mission.

Today — at a pivotal moment for our state, the University of Nebraska and all of higher education — I find myself again reflecting on the parallels between my former and current roles.

Commanding a ship is hardly the same as serving a complex university system. But if a powerful vessel that’s almost as long as the Empire State Building is tall can change course in minutes when the mission demands it, I am convinced that higher education, led and served by some of the most brilliant minds our nation has ever known, can similarly chart new paths when we are called to stand and deliver.

That call to action is upon us.

Higher education has long been one of America’s crown jewels, but historically it has not shown itself to be especially nimble or adaptable. Maybe that’s because adaptability has never been forced on our industry. But change is here now. And we must respond with swift, decisive action, true to our mission — or we will be carried wherever the storm takes us.

In naval terms, “headwinds” is an understatement to describe the challenges facing higher education.

American colleges and universities have lost 1.3 million students since the pandemic began, and with birthrates falling, the pool of prospective students isn’t expected to grow anytime soon.

Fewer students means fewer tuition dollars — at the same time we are being squeezed, like most families and businesses, by the rising costs of daily operations.

Those who do enroll expect and deserve a high-quality education, taught by world-class professors, for an affordable cost that won’t saddle them with debt. Yet troubling surveys tell us that many Americans doubt that quality, affordable higher education is widely available. More troubling still, some national headlines question whether college is worth it at all — even as we may in fact be undercounting the so-called “million-dollar difference” that a four-year degree provides in a person’s lifetime earnings.

On the flip side, we face urgent needs in terms of workforce, economic development and quality of life. There are 80,000 unfilled jobs in Nebraska alone. No entity in the state can produce a skilled workforce on a scale like the University of Nebraska. No entity can deliver the breadth of research done at the University of Nebraska.

So, in the face of strong headwinds, we at the University of Nebraska say: Staying the course isn’t an option.

Instead, we won’t be afraid to think differently about the future. We’ll be creative, willing to pivot when it’s necessary and especially when it’s hard. We will steer our dollars toward the most crucial priorities, knowing that Nebraskans have generously entrusted us with their resources and expect us to get things done on their behalf.

We will acknowledge that we can’t be all things to all people, and will instead focus on fundamental mission areas:

  • Affordable, accessible, outstanding education for all students.
  • World-class research that makes a difference in Nebraskans’ lives – helping farmers and ranchers be more productive, treating loved ones facing a cancer diagnosis, saving the lives of our men and women on the battlefield.
  • The recruitment, retention and development of a talented workforce, by competing harder for faculty, staff and students and keeping them right here in Nebraska.

More than 150 years ago, the people of Nebraska gave their university a mission. Today that mission of service to our state is as important as ever. Success demands new thinking, a willingness to innovative, compete and take risks.

We will deliver. Nebraska’s future is too important not to.

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Ted Carter
Ted Carter

Ted Carter, of Lincoln, is president of the University of Nebraska, a role he has held since January 2020. As president, he leads a four-campus university system that includes four campuses and enrolls almost 50,000 students. Before coming to Nebraska, Carter was superintendent of his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy. His 38-year military career includes more than 6,300 flying hours, 125 combat missions and the American record for carrier-arrested landings.