Bad Days for NU, and for All Nebraska

November, 2017

Lincoln -- These are bad days for the University of Nebraska, for the State of Nebraska, and for all who call Nebraska home.

I am not talking about the football team, nor about the free-speech contretemps on the Lincoln campus. Indeed, those problems are bad enough but they should not be taking up so much of the university president's and chancellor's time, dominating as they do state-wide headlines.

Rather, I am referring to Nebraska's agricultural economy, how deeply it is in trouble, and how the leadership of our land-grant university must become more engaged in finding solutions to the growing ag sector crisis.

Last week I talked to a member of the state's revenue forecasting board, who confirmed the pessimistic news that while Omaha and Lincoln are doing fairly well, the rest of the state is not and state government tax revenues are plummeting. This means no money for local property tax relief, let alone for the funding of state government functions. The board's prediction is that things will only get worse.

As if that weren't enough, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released its report that Nebraska would be among the states hardest hit by the current NAFTA negotiations. If the Trump Administration pulls the U.S. out of NAFTA, Nebraska will lose $2.6 billion in export revenue and lose 87,000 jobs.

The real free speech question here is whether the university leadership is able to speak forthrightly to this situation and take the institution in directions that might turn the failing ag sector around. That's what land-grant institutions are for. Or has the ascendant political culture in Nebraska, which seems to want to take advantage of the university's troubles, made it unsafe for such speech and leadership because part of the solution is inherently political and would constitute a challenge? Who else has the stature to admit that current farm programs are not working and that withdrawing from NAFTA is daft?*

The university, to be sure, is doing some new and impressive work for Nebraska agriculture. For example, in a few days the Nebraska Innovation Campus will host a session on developing local food markets, along with partners USDA and the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, among others. The NIC has come a long way from its shaky start and is now starting to live up to its name. New initiatives at the IANR campus are also promising.

But at the top, university leadership is mired in a contrived controversy involving an undergraduate student who, outside the classroom, proclaims "Big Government Sucks" and a graduate student who calls the undergraduate a "Neo-Fascist." To me, both expressions are offensive and best handled by Miss Manners, not by our top university leaders who need to start speaking out themselves on what must be done to save the Nebraska agricultural economy.

*Certainly not the faculty, which has just been chilled by the sacrifice of two university employees to appease political critics. Their offense? Fighting back for their institution, perhaps ineptly, but loyally. Message sent; message received.