Troubled Start at NIC

January, 2015

Lincoln -- The Nebraska Innovation Campus, a public-private partnership endeavor on the old State Fairgrounds focusing on food, fuel, and water, is getting off to a slow start. With the exception of ConAgra, the NIC has not attracted companies interested in locating there. There has already been a management shake-up, with UNL taking a stronger role in recruiting. UNL also wants more money from the state legislature to try to get the project moving. There is talk at the Regents' level of needing additional tax breaks as location incentives.

Recruiting wasn't helped by a guest speaker at UNL in October, MIT's Neil Gershenfeld, who told the E. N. Thompson Forum on World Issues that most universities' public-private "innovation" centers are anything but. He said universities typically go after the wrong companies and the wrong people. I was at the lecture and had to suppress a gasp – did he not know the Nebraska Innovation Campus was one of sponsors of his talk?

Recruiting may also not be helped by the UNL partnership with ConAgra. Few companies have a worse record and reputation for environmental concerns. ConAgra, a company often in trouble not only with the EPA but also with the SEC and the Department of Justice, is the epitome of Big Ag. With UNL committed to combining its Food Science and Technology Department with ConAgra on the Innovation Campus, some potential recruits may sense that Big Ag and its bottom-line emphasis on short term profits will be calling the shots, and that real scientific innovation and the faculty academic freedom that can make it happen will suffer.

Such fears could only have been enhanced by the New York Times' page 1 article and subsequent editorial on bad research practices at Nebraska's Meat Animal Research Center, a collaborative effort of USDA and UNL. According to the Times, an experienced veterinarian on the UNL faculty who blew the whistle on the appalling conditions and practices at the center was told by his supervisor to stay away from the center and not to show a reporter his concerns. This could steer NIC prospects away from associating with any UNL enterprise.

There is also a question of whether the university itself is ready for innovation. Last fall two of us had lunch at the famous Dairy Store on the UNL East Campus, where customers can buy ice cream, cheese, milk and other dairy products produced on site. It also serves sandwiches and salads. We asked if there was anything organic on the menu, to the bewilderment of the persons behind the counter who were not familiar with the term organic. Management in the back room was consulted; the answer was no. We ordered anyway and ate a tasteless lunch amid posters proclaiming the wonderful world of processed and manufactured foods, as if this were the 1950s and obesity was not yet a problem.

This was a shock. Innovation in agriculture is happening in the booming farm-to-table and organic farming movements all across the country. In Lincoln I shop at Open Harvest, a cooperative grocery that markets the produce of local organic farms. These farms also supply several of Lincoln's and Omaha's best restaurants. One day I asked the Open Harvest manager if her business or any of these farms were working with the university. "No," she said, "what they do with food down there is the opposite of what we stand for."

NIC may well fail if it does not begin to define itself as genuinely open to all innovation, not just the kind certain food and fuel businesses favor. This may require tolerance of truly independent thinkers who go against the grain and raise uncomfortable questions about nutrition, antibiotics, fertilizers, water, and climate change. It may require a new ethic in research administration, to stand up for whistleblowers, not to silence them.

I want the NIC to succeed, and succeed in a big way. It is located partly in the old fairgrounds' 4-H building, where as a youngster I showed beef cattle, and in the old Industrial Arts building, which was the one and only art gallery to display our one-room country school's works of art. NIC success would justify converting those venerable buildings into something far larger than we could ever imagine.

Missed Opportunity on P Street

January, 2015

Lincoln -- We tried out Lincoln's newly redesigned P Street strip for our New Year's Eve celebration. It was fun; we'd do it again despite the bitter cold and winds that made our eyes sting.

We started out by the Children's Museum at 15th Street and saw several families having a good time on inventive play installations. Next was a drop-in at the Zoo Bar, where five minutes of standing-room-only was enough. Then past Tower Square and on to a more hospitable Barrymore's where a friend offered opinions on everything from the impending collapse of civilization to the design of the new P street sidewalks. ("Not designed by an engineer; must have been done by an art school drop-out.") Then on to Misty's, where a subdued crowd was all dressed in red, having come over from an NU basketball game. (The home team lost.) Then back to the car to drive to the Haymarket end of P Street, to avoid the wind.

At the Haymarket, McFarland's served up good food and drink to the music of a lively Irish band, the Paddywhack.

The most memorable part of the new P Street was Tower Square. The colorful, lighted tower evokes ships' pennants waving in the wind, giving land-locked Lincoln a port area to call its own. The rest of P Street may be nice for the extended sidewalks where restaurants can offer dining under the trees (and amid prairie flora) in the warmer months, but beyond that there is excess clutter. The concrete benches with metal armrests are unwelcoming and might as well have a sign on them to warn people off. The blue lights under the benches are cold and draw the eyes downward as if our eyes should be cast toward the gutters.

What is not evident in the design is any sense of the history of the street. Imagine a man on horseback, in full army uniform wearing a hero's Silver Star (from combat in the Philippine-American War), leading a parade up P Street from the Haymarket with William Jennings Bryan in tow to welcome him home on the eve of the 1908 presidential election. That would be Col. Frank Eager, Lincoln lawyer and businessman, publisher of the populist Independent newspaper (Thomas Tibbles, editor), who envisioned a row of theaters, hotels, and office buildings along P Street, and who soon saw many of them built with his encouragement and financing. Clientele came from the nearby University, which Frank Eager kept from re-locating eastward to the State Farm (now the East Campus) in 1912. He battled Chancellor Samuel Avery over the issue, put up $700,000 of private money to expand the City Campus to 16th Street, and won a statewide-referendum showdown to keep the main campus near P Street.

That is the P Street of history, of which the new design is innocent. It is a history with which the city itself now seems unfamiliar. What a missed opportunity. Imagine an equestrian figure in the design, or an image of The Great Commoner himself, or an evocation of what an important city Lincoln was in its early years. Instead, we get concrete benches with anti-homeless armrests. Take them away. Look up instead to the pennants on the new tower.