NU seeks to protect academic, athletic future in Big Ten, pledging closer UNL-UNMC ties

By: - January 29, 2024 2:08 pm

Chancellor Ronnie Green delivers his undergraduate commencement address at Memorial Stadium. May 20, 2023. (Craig Chandler/University Communication)

LINCOLN — The University of Nebraska-Lincoln took a significant step toward securing its future in the Big Ten Conference on Monday, which would preserve its membership in the academically prestigious group and its access to the highest level of college sports.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

The University of Nebraska system announced that the National Science Foundation has agreed to let UNL and the University of Nebraska Medical Center combine their annual federal research funding when responding to the foundation’s annual survey of national colleges and universities.

Securing this change addresses a key issue that the Association of American Universities cited in 2011 when it took the unprecedented step of kicking out UNL. Iowa State University resigned from the AAU in 2022 to avoid a similar fate.

Leaders at UNL and Iowa State have said some AAU leaders had prioritized medical research over agricultural research when evaluating their academic peers, which left land grant universities such as theirs in a difficult position. 

Both have said they want to continue their legacies of research that impacts every part of the state and will keep prioritizing agriculture. But Nebraska is the only Big Ten member that doesn’t belong to the 71-member club of top-tier research universities.

Part of push to rejoin AAU

The NU Board of Regents has pledged to do all it can to help UNL rejoin the AAU, including boosting research ties between UNL and UNMC in Omaha.

Durham Research Center II at the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus .(Courtesy of UNMC)

Interim NU President Chris Kabourek said reporting research as a single University of Nebraska was “a first step.” He called it “a big deal” and said it “instantly makes Nebraska look more like our peers.” But, he stressed, it is one of many steps needed.

One big component is a massive private fundraising effort to grow the university’s academic reputation and reach. Another is securing buy-in from state stakeholders for what it takes to reach the NU vision as a Big Ten peer.

Kabourek also said the university may have to take a deeper look at its administrative structure, set in the 1960s. He said it can’t hamstring the federal and private research dollars that have opened up since UNL joined the Big Ten Academic Alliance.

He said the National Science Foundation would never let NU simply change some administrative roles to boost its numbers. It also had to commit to pursuing greater cooperation and administrative ties between the two campuses.

Kabourek said it was too soon to tell what shape those changes might take. Every other Big Ten member except Purdue University has an academic medical center under its administrative umbrella. 

“We cannot get bogged down between these regional differences. This can’t be an Omaha versus Lincoln thing. This has to be a Nebraska thing,” he said. “If we’re going to compete with Wisconsin and Purdue and Michigan, we don’t have quite the population base that some of those places have. So we have to leverage team Nebraska.”

By the numbers

Last year, the National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research & Development Survey listed UNL’s research at $113.2 million. It listed UNMC’s at $114.7 million.

UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey Gold. Oct. 5, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The change in how the research totals are reported goes into effect next year. If it had been in place this year, it would have moved UNL from ranking 122nd in research to the mid-60s.

Combining UNL and UNMC research would push that number to $251 million, above the University of Oregon, a Big Ten newcomer, at $97 million and nearer the $314 million of the University of Iowa. 

On the other end of the Big Ten, the University of Michigan reported nearly $1 billion in research and another Big Ten newcomer, the University of California at Los Angeles, reported $850 million.

UNMC Chancellor Dr. Jeffrey Gold said people will benefit from closer ties between UNMC and all of the state’s campuses, including UNL. He said NU had been an outlier because it reported its research by individual campuses. 

“This is the common model,” Gold said. “Frankly, it will allow us to be more accurately compared to many of our peers.”

Asked about the possibility of changes in the university’s administrative structure, Gold said he is focused elsewhere, on “the very best of the research strengths of both institutions and marrying them in a way that really serves our mission.”

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Rodney Bennett. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

UNMC is already a part of the academic side of the Big Ten, and Gold said cancer patients benefit from those ties. Academic medical centers in the group often cooperate on things like trials of new cancer treatments and drugs, he said.

Working more closely with UNL and its College of Engineering, for example, will help UNMC offer students more opportunities in research, he said, and reporting totals that are more reflective of the institution will help with student and faculty recruitment.

UNL Chancellor Rodney Bennett echoed that sentiment, saying, “When we work together, big things happen for Nebraska. … When Nebraska’s flagship and medical center work together, it is good for agriculture, national defense, engineering, health care and all areas that matter to Nebraskans.”

Athletics and academics matter to both

NU officials acknowledge part of the urgency for Nebraska in regaining AAU membership involves changes in college athletics. But given the impact of Big Ten membership on research and academics, they say it matters to NU as a whole.

Two power conferences, the Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten, are adding the biggest football brands and pulling away from the rest in terms of TV revenue. Schools in the remaining conferences are unlikely to be able to offer their athletes the same perks or outside opportunities as schools in the top two.

Huskers Athletic Director Trev Alberts on Oct. 5, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

One example: NU Athletics Director Trev Alberts said last month that the top conference schools are already discussing how they might try to share revenues with the players.

Kabourek said it was vital to knock down the “firewall” people have put up between academics and athletics. 

“I know one thing about Nebraskans,” he said. “We’re Nebraska nice, but we like to compete, and we need to make sure that from the leadership perspective, that we are doing everything we can to make sure we are being as competitive as we can.”

He said that includes making sure UNL looks like its peers.

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.