The University of Nebraska system recently held a Rural Futures Conference--the purpose was to engage a broad stakeholder group in discussions about the university's role in shaping the future of rural Nebraska.
The conference featured several panels of experts discussing their views (in front of 500 interested spectators). One panelist mentioned that there were many ways the university can support rural areas, and one was to "put their money where their mouth is." That is, the university should invest in Main Street at least as much as they invest in Wall Street.
I thought that was a pretty challenging statement. I am guessing most high-ranking administrators in attendance were a bit nervous about that statement.
It has been a few days since the conference, and I've been thinking more about that challenge. Here are just a couple of ideas for how to start meeting that challenge:
1. Really support the training of Nebraskans. Stipends and benefits for graduate students have been the university's hidden eye-sore for a long time. This applies to most universities in the country. Low pay, high expectations, and little to no benefits. Especially health benefits. The average graduate student is not a single 22-year-old, now--grad students are coming back to school later in life, and they have complex families. We are training Nebraskans and we are also training the world--international students are similarly vulnerable during their graduate training in the US. Health insurance issues are complex, but we can improve what we offer. The university should step up and support the engine of the discoveries that are coming from its bowels.
2. Support rural training with affordable tuition rates and housing. I think the University of Nebraska actually does a pretty good job at keeping tuition in line. But, housing rates at the University are ungodly high. I recently priced a graduate dormitory for a visiting student from Ethiopia. They wanted $750\month for a starkly furnished room (bed and desk) in a very old dormitory, with no meal plan--just the room. I can see why so many students live off-campus.
3. Investments in local communities. Universities truly have power of investment. Decisions about where to house certain activities can have a large impact--the University of Nebraska does have satellite research and extension centers in all parts of the state, which contribute (through university-paid salaries) directly to the local economies. We should keep thinking about this model--not every new venture has to be in Lincoln. Perhaps the Rural Futures Institute should be physically located in rural Nebraska!
With regard to financial investments, Duke University has some interesting programs that might spark ideas. They have invested in the local Durham neighborhoods that boarder the school. There are neighborhood clinics supported by Duke. They have funded low-interest mortgages. I suspect UN could make a similarly impressive page of how the Medical Center plays roles in rural communities already. But, there are some key decisions that could be made to switch some investments to funds that include local companies.
4. Invest in faculty and staff positions that benefit Nebraskans. Universities are running, these days, on income generated from high volume of external grant dollars. The indirect costs associated with those grant dollars help make up the slack from decreasing investments from the state legislatures (across the country) in universities. The current economy and our political climate's philosophy of lower taxes means that states have less money to spend on programs, like universities. To date, the University of Nebraska enjoys good funding from our state, because the University is seen as contributing to the state. Once that perception changes, however, you don't have to look far to find states (Iowa, for example) who have substantially decreased funding to state universities. Tuition hikes and increased pressure for high-level research are the only answers (well, and finding large donors for programs--as is hoped for the Rural Futures Institute).
My point: if universities go too far in the research direction, teaching and Extension programs are minimized. And, that is what makes the connection to the state. The RF Conference, if nothing else, compiled evidence from testimony after testimony that Nebraska has needs that are not going to be filled by high-dollar research grants. The university must find ways to invest salary lines in Extension and teaching positions that make a difference to the state--without worrying about whether these positions will result in high research kick-backs in the future. This is going to take a little re-thinking: it is a delicate dance, as research is also the innovation engine for the state (as well as a funding device for universities).
That is the challenge of the Rural Futures Institute, as I see it! Should be a fun ride for those of us already on board!
PS: One of the nice adventures at the conference was meeting people from outside Nebraska and outside the US. "Rural Futures" is not a Nebraska invention, which is good to remember! For additional, similar, already-running efforts see:
A UK economic planning/consulting unit "Rural Futures"
University of New England's Rural Futures Institute in Australia
A multi-institutional lab in the US: Rural Futures Lab
The North American Rural Futures Institute
Rural Futures: a newsletter from New York's Senate