Academic Program Cuts at UNL

April, 2018

Lincoln -- The UNL chancellor has announced cuts to several academic programs in response to the Nebraska legislature's reductions in university appropriations. The fact that the reductions could have been much worse should not take attention away from the implications of the new rollbacks.

In a previous post, I suggested that the governor and the legislature should be demanding more from the university to help the state's agriculture sector, as opposed to trying to cut appropriations as a way to prosperity. The UNL college of agriculture should be a particular focus.

It is therefore not a good signal that the chancellor's first cut is to eliminate the Rural Futures Institute, launched in 2012 to considerable fanfare. Unless, of course, the RFI interdisciplinary approach to reviving rural Nebraska has not measured up and indeed should be on the chopping block. My sense of RFI is that it has had an impossible task given national and state trends in agriculture. On top of that, its approach was too much cheerleading and not enough sober assessment of the fundamentals of rural economies as they now exist given failing national agriculture policy.

Another cut that raises eyebrows is the downsizing of the Survey Research and Methodology Program and a concomitant re-arrangement of funding for the department of statistics. At a time when the integrity of academic research is threatened as never before by funding sources who want to skew findings favorable to their interests, universities need strong efforts in research methodology and statistics.*

The other cuts are more understandable. Universities must constantly update, which requires cutting as well as adding. Sometimes funding pressures can actually be good for institutional renewal.

The chancellor doubtless was tempted to cut the English department, as it has been attacked by a few in the Nebraska legislature who do not approve of its curriculum. Commendably, he did not succumb.

I must relate an anecdote about English teachers from two days ago, when I attended the annual Ron Ridenhour awards ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, sponsored by the Project on Goverment Oversight. Ridenhour was a courageous Vietnam veteran and reporter who first chronicled the My Lai massacre, fifty years ago. His eyewitness source was Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who stopped the massacre by use of force against his fellow servicemen who were committing it. After Hugh Thompson left the Army he sought guidance about whether he should participate in a cover-up of the massacre. His old Boy Scout leader and his old football coach advised him to stay quiet. His English teacher told him of his moral duty to speak up. We are a better country for that English teacher.

* If any statistics faculty are losing their jobs, they could get a measure of poetic justice on their way out the door by instructing the chairman of the board of regents and the president of the university about how to calculate and describe percentages. Both the chairman and the president, during this year's budget battle with the legislature, claimed that UNL administrative costs were "125% lower" than such costs at peer institutions in other states. Meaning what, exactly? That they were less than zero? The actual numbers, it turns out, are these: UNL, $52 million; peer group, $117 million. The former is not "125% lower" than the latter. Correctly expressed, one can say the peer group is 125% higher than UNL, or UNL is 44% of the peer group. The same error was made in describing UNO against its peer group, claiming that it was "100% lower." Again, meaning what, that UNO had no administrative costs whatsoever? What was meant, apparently, is that UNO costs are 50% of its peer group, or its peer group is 100% higher than UNO; that is, twice as high. UNO is not "100% lower." This is embarrassing for a research university.

Two 'Debficits'

April, 2018

Lincoln -- The Nebraska Legislature is adjourning without providing property tax relief, further stressing the hard-pressed agriculture sector. The state budget simply can't sustain even the paltry amount half-heartedly offered by the governor. Now the state is facing a voter referendum on property taxes that may throw the state into fiscal chaos not seen in decades.

At the federal level, the Congressional Budget Office has just projected this year's federal deficit to exceed one trillion dollars, with many more such deficits projected far into the future. This is a huge reversal in the fiscal condition of the federal government, which in recent years had actually been cutting deficits.

These two dangerous conditions would not have developed had elected officials – one in particular – only abided by basic tenets of fiscal responsibility.

At the state level, when times were momentarily flush for agriculture, and when state revenues were growing nicely in 2011 and 2012, the legislature took a portion of the sales tax base and dedicated it to highway construction. This was a risky move as it violated a commonly accepted principle of public budgeting and finance: user taxes should pay for roads and sales taxes for general government. Rather than raising gas taxes, which for many years had been declining as a percentage of gas prices and construction needs, the legislature took tens of millions of dollars annually away from sales tax revenue, a textbook source of local property tax relief. The predictable happened: the farm economy faltered, land prices did not decline commensurately, and the state became crippled, unable to respond to the property tax crisis squeezing Nebraska's all-important agriculture sector.

At the federal level, Congress passed an unfunded tax bill in December of 2017, followed by a huge spending bill in early 2018. The combination is sending the federal deficit to unprecedented and dangerous levels.

One elected official has been instrumental in all three acts of breathtaking fiscal irresponsibility: Deb Fischer. As a state senator, she led the raid on the state sales tax base, which should have been preserved for property tax relief. As a U.S. senator, she voted for both the tax bill and the spending bill, sending the annual federal deficit over a trillion dollars.

Her name is now synonymous with deficits at both state and federal levels. Henceforth in Nebraska the word "deficit" should be called "Debficit."

It is no wonder that Deb Fischer has many challengers this election year.  Nebraskans want property tax relief and want their candidates to support federal fiscal responsibility, if not outright balanced budgets. Deb Fischer has a poor record on both.

Demanding More from NU Investment

April, 2018

Lincoln -- The 2018 Nebraska legislative session is over and the University of Nebraska budget escaped with only relatively minor cuts. The governor and several state senators had wanted much deeper reductions, given state government's bleak revenue outlook.

A question was tossed my way when I was in Lincoln during the session: as a person who once worked on such matters for many years, would I cut the NU budget?

The short answer is no, but I would demand more from the university in areas crucial to Nebraska's future. Let me explain.

A case can be made that Nebraska spends more on higher education compared to other states and, therefore, cutbacks might be in order, especially in times of state revenue shortfalls. But a case can also be made that Nebraska ranks high as a good place to live and that its overall educational system is among the top ten in the country.

I'd venture that there is some level of causality at work here, not just fortuitious correlations. Nebraska's investment in higher education may be somewhat high, but so are the returns.

Looking at the Nebraska economy, we see the Omaha and Lincoln urban areas doing well. I think it's reasonable for the university – UNL, UNO, and UNMC – to take a considerable measure of credit for it. The engineering and business colleges, the professional schools of medicine, dentistry, law, and pharmacy, and especially the departments in the arts and sciences that do the heavy intellectual lifting, should be recognized for their roles in this good fortune.

Rural Nebraska is another story, however. The agricultural sector is doing poorly and is responsible for the state's revenue woes. Which raises the question of the responsibility of the state's college of agriculture.

Of course it's not just Nebraska's ag economy that is suffering; the nation's whole farm belt is in crisis. So it's hardly fair to target one college for falling short, let alone single it out for budget cuts.

Rather, I believe, more should be demanded of this college, and of other such colleges of agriculture across the country at land-grant universities. What does it take to get the agricultural economy healthy again? This should be the burning question at both the Nebraska statehouse and at the university.

And is it even appropriate to think in terms of making Nebraska agriculture "healthy again"? The state's rural areas (and its towns and cities) have been depopulating for decades. Some say it is unavoidable and inevitable; others say it is the legacy of the ag economists who were the hand-maidens of those who would turn agriculture from a way of life for many into a business opportunity for few. I lean toward the latter explanation.

There is a way out. At last the spell of Earl Butz ("Get big or get out") is being broken by those who recognize the promise of new, emerging markets. See, for example, Harvesting Opportunity by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, which sees substantial local and regional market potential. The "feed the world" school of thought has also been dealt a blow by the NYT series on world obesity; to what end has American agriculture's "fencerow to fencerow" production been put? The answer to that does not bode well for the current Nebraska agricultural economy, but it may stimulate moves toward nutrition-based rather than calorie-based production, which would be good for all of us, here and abroad.

At a minimum, Nebraska legislators and taxpayers should be looking to the state's agriculture college and demanding a Plan B based on Nebraska's own comparative advantages of land, water, and human resources. Agronomists trying to squeeze another bushel of yield out of corn or Extension agents instructing farmers in the use of dicamba are not going to solve the sector's problems. In fact, they may worsen them. Bolder thinking is in order.

It's long past time not to slash away at the university's budget indiscriminately, but to demand more from our investment, especially in agriculture-related areas.

Readers' Reactions and Questions

April, 2018

Lincoln and Berlin -- This blog admittedly jumps around with regard both to its geographical perspective ("Three Capitals") and its subject matter. I am often taken by surprise myself at what can pop up as a topic at any given time.

Contacts with readers are important determinants of the varied subjects of these blog posts. For example, several readers have appreciated the recent six-part Iron Triangle series; likely there will be more such.

Today's post takes note of recent, unexpected but welcome reader questions about posts from a few years ago.

One reader, having read my post about Edith Schwartz Clements, wanted more information about her. Several exchanges later, I was delighted to see two new references (here and here) to the pioneer ecologist's remarkable life and work.

This was not the first time I was contacted about Edith Clements, as another reader's curiosity helped lead to an excellent Wikipedia entry about her. This led to yet another short biography of Edith Clements, who is finally getting recognition long overdue.

Another reader, a New York publisher, having read my posts about the books of Gretchen Klotz Dutschke, recently asked for her contact information. Gretchen, a good friend who knows Germany as no one else possibly can, has a new book out that made its appearance last month at the Leipzig book fair. I hope that putting the publisher in touch with her will soon lead to a book in English for an American readership.

As noted in the author profile sidebar (above), I welcome comments and questions from researchers and others with an interest in the subjects covered in this blog. It is especially gratifying to have had questions that led to a wider appreciation of noteworthy people like Edith Schwartz Clements and Gretchen Klotz Dutschke.