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.

Veterans' Day, 2017

November, 2017

Washington -- Today is Veterans' Day and a time to reflect on family and friends who served in uniform.

Thoughts go first to those veterans I knew personally, albeit as a youngster with little appreciation for their service. Great uncles Ralph Zicafoose, Oscar Spader, and Herbert Bergstrom were all wounded in WWI. Hilmer Bergstrom served in the merchant marine.

Then there are my first cousins, once removed, who served in WWII: Walt Johnson; George Richardson; Les and Orville Oberg; and John Calvin Oberg, who survived the sinking of the USS Wasp.

Four first cousins served during the period from WWII's end through Korea and Vietnam: Roger and Merv Johnson, Virgil Oberg, Byron Almquist.

Many friends and neighbors have served in uniform. I hardly knew him, but neighbor Frank Eager (1872-1960) served in the Philippine War and was awarded the Silver Star. (His family homestead was rented out and he lived in Lincoln.) Several in my high school class served (as did I). Some in my college class were killed or captured in Vietnam.

Going back further, family ancestors on my paternal grandmother's side served in the colonial wars and in the Revolutionary War. Some of their descendants, also forebears, fought on both sides of the Civil War, as their ancestral home was in Virginia at the beginning of the war and in West Virginia at the end of it. Ephraim Zicafoose, who fought for the Union, lies buried in a Union cemetery in Mississippi. His cousin Sampson Zicafoose, my great-great grandfather, died in 1863 of unknown causes after being in the Confederate Army. Likely he was conscripted into it, and may even have perished through fleeing it, as he made it home before his death; but he may also have been a willing defender of slavery, as his wife's family (Simmons) had been slaveholders.

Which leads to the question of what to make of the current controversy over Confederate monuments. Being the descendant of at least one Confederate soldier, I have license equal to other such descendants to voice my opinion, which is to put them in museums, where they will be explained, not celebrated. We are not a country that defaces or blows-up statues. We should confront our history honestly and try to improve from it.

Recognition of uniformed service, in whatever wars, should be a time of reflection more than celebration. Indeed, I'm grateful for all who served in honorable causes. As to my own service, I'd like to think it was in an honorable cause (and some of it was, to be sure; see a previous post), but I'm not putting on my old uniform and joining any parades this Veterans' Day. I could, but won't.

Stan Matzke, Jr. 1933 - 2017

November, 2017

Lincoln and Washington -- It's painful to note the passing yesterday of Stan Matzke, Jr., my longtime friend and colleague.

The last time I heard from him was in the mail. He sent me a photo he had taken while visiting our Nebraska prairie property, along with two dollar bills to pay for the shoe covers he had accidently taken from our barn. The gesture was in part to tweak the very idea of having shoe covers in a barn. Stan had his own farm in the southern reaches of Lancaster County, on which he and Dorothy raised pecans and walnuts.

Stan sometimes thought of himself modestly, as being in the shadow of his father, Stan Matzke, Sr., a legendary state senator and conservationist. He always liked it when I told him I knew the Matzke name more from his own exploits on the basketball court (as a star player at NU in the 1950s) than from the accomplishments of his father.

Stan Jr. had his own accomplishments in government, about which I have written before. See posts here and here. He could work across party lines easily for good causes, working with Democrats while remaining close to the most decent of Republicans.

Stan, I'll be tied up in Washington next week and won't have a chance to pay my final respests to you in Lincoln. So I'll just have to post this message to say Nebraska has lost one of its best, and forever will be a lesser place without you.