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Barnstorming the state, UNL takes a positive message on the road

August 1, 2018
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In Columbus as part of his summer tour across the state, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green (right) checks out the STEM Wing of the new Columbus High School with Superintendent Troy Loeffelholz.

COLUMBUS — It’s not the barnstorming flying circuses of a century ago, nor a barnstorming baseball exhibition.

But if you live inside what the University of Nebraska calls its 400-mile-wide campus, chances are the university will make a tour stop at a gathering place near you.

With school a few weeks away, Chancellor Ronnie Green and others representing UNL have criss-crossed the state to discuss Nebraska’s largest public university campus in coffee shops, hotel ballrooms and high school cafeterias.

It’s a chance to connect with university supporters as far away as Ogallala and Valentine, or make introductions to future students or old alumni in places such as Geneva, Bassett or Minden.

Monday, Green rolled into Columbus for a routine stop on an annual tour across the Cornhusker State.

“Of all the places I’ve been in Nebraska, I’ve done the most speaking in Columbus,” Green told a lunchtime gathering of the Chamber of Commerce.

Green said he’s spoken in the Platte County city of 22,000 nearly every year since he started at UNL as the vice chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources in 2010.

Embarking on his third year as UNL’s chancellor, Green’s message has evolved, now encompassing student enrollment and research spending data conjured from memory.

Each stop marks a kind of micro-preview of the state of the university address Green will give later this fall.

UNL expects to break enrollment records for the fourth straight year when students arrive on campus later this month, landing somewhere around the 26,500 mark for the first time, he told the Columbus Chamber.

At the same time, UNL will be more diverse than ever before in the ethnicity, place of origin, economic and social status of its student body, he added.

Roughly two-thirds of UNL’s students will be native Nebraskans, hailing from all 93 counties, making the land grant institution “the people’s university,” Green says.

UNL is also breaking records in its research spending, topping $300 million for the first time last year and finding itself among the top 20 fastest-growing research universities in the U.S.

“I might be a little biased, but trust me, it’s true,” Green jokes.

Although research tied to agriculture is UNL’s foundation, researchers are also making strides in materials engineering, physics, national defense and too many other areas to name, he told the luncheon crowd.

And UNL is continuing to succeed in its outreach, maintaining a presence in every county in the state and boasting participation in 4-H that reaches 1 in 3 Nebraska youth.

Green told the Chamber members, about 40 or so who gathered at the Ramada Inn on the southern edge of town, he sees UNL continuing that rate of growth in all areas:

* Enrolling 30,000 students within the next few years.

* Doubling research spending to $600 million.

* Reaching half of the state’s youth through programs such as 4-H.

Answering questions Monday, Green said UNL is experiencing growth while other universities, particularly in neighboring states or other states within the Big Ten Conference, are shrinking.

Students in Illinois, for example, can attend UNL for the same price as an institution in their home state, he said, which is helping boost the nonresident population in Lincoln.

At the same time, Green said roughly three-fourths of UNL’s College of Business students remain in Nebraska upon graduation, a figure reflected in the larger university demographic.

The university hopes to continue training the next generation of engineers, business owners, agriculturalists and others well into the future, Green responded to another question, while also remaining affordable and accessible.

Looking ahead to the university’s next 25 years — as UNL will do in celebrating its 150th anniversary — the chancellor said he also hopes Nebraskans take time to reflect on the university’s history.

During a period of civil war in the 1860s, President Abraham Lincoln signed several pieces of legislation into law that forever transformed the American continent. The Homestead Act gave free land to encourage settlers to strike west, while the transcontinental railroad expedited that movement and connected two coasts.

But it was the Morrill Act of 1862 that established land grant institutions across the country, including UNL.

In another time of societal upheaval and political division on college campuses across the country, including UNL, Green said he hopes the university can continue being a transformative force while meeting the needs of the state and its students.

“If you’ll remember, there was a tremendous amount of innovation that took place while this country was at civil war,” he said. “The mission of the land grant university is every bit or maybe more important today than it was in 1869.”

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