LINCOLN — The University of Nebraska's tug of war over engineering programs in Omaha has spilled over onto the Peter Kiewit Institute, raising questions about whether the University of Nebraska at Omaha showpiece is living up to its potential.
A consultant's report last month highlighted the institute's continuing struggle to coordinate its research agenda among its many stakeholders. NU President J.B. Milliken gave the chancellors of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska at Omaha until early September to propose how to iron out the problems.
Opened in 1999, the Kiewit Institute answered an urgent call from Omaha business leaders for more engineering and computer expertise in the city.
Its goals were ambitious and multifaceted: Create a multi-campus partnership with the business sector in Omaha and beyond to establish an internationally recognized center for engineering and computer-related research and education.
But a recent report completed for the NU Board of Regents concluded that the institute has fallen short of those goals because of “dysfunctionalities” in its structure and operations.
Written by two former deans at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the report concluded that the institute was being held back by its leaders not working together. As a result, private financial support has stalled, and faculty, some of whom report to UNL and others to UNO, have become more hesitant to work on joint projects.
The institute was drawn into the spotlight by a festering debate over the proposed merger of an institute-based computer engineering program with a Lincoln-based electrical engineering program. UNL leaders sought the merger as part of a broader plan to enhance engineering study at both campuses. Opponents argued that a merger would undermine the program's responsiveness to Omaha business needs.
Milliken put the proposed merger on hold and commissioned the report by Peter Freeman and Don Giddens in early May.
Freeman, now a member of a Washington consulting company, had been involved in the institute's design in the 1990s and led a 2007 review that also raised concerns about the institute's priorities, coordination and financing.
Milliken said the leaders of both campuses need to work on a fix.
“There needs to be integrated planning,” he said. “All of us would agree that this is an important mission for bringing the two campuses together, and that academic leadership needs to be more engaged.”
The executive director of the institute, Mike McGinnis, acknowledged the difficulties in a recent interview.
He works in a structure where he has no direct authority over institute faculty. College of Engineering professors answer to a dean and a chancellor in Lincoln, while their counterparts in the College of Information Science report to a dean and a chancellor in Omaha. McGinnis himself reports to Milliken and the provost in NU's central administration.
McGinnis, who was hired in 2009, said he has had to rebuild strained relationships with some businesses.
He declined to provide specific examples but said the institute had spread itself too thin by making research agreements with hundreds of companies and failing to deliver research as promised.
Though the consultants repeatedly referred to “depleted financial resources,” their report provided no specifics about recent private support for the institute. Fundraising statistics were not immediately available from the NU Foundation.
The institute was established with $70 million in startup funds, including $47 million in private gifts from a drive led by Walter Scott, retired CEO of Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc. Other donations from Scott and his wife, Suzanne, were used to build dormitories and establish a prestigious scholarship fund for Kiewit Institute students.
That initial “endowment” for operating costs has been depleted, the consultants said, calling for a “reset program” to generate more outside dollars and to renew enthusiasm for the institute's mission.
McGinnis was hired after the 2007 review led to changes in the executive director's job description, giving the position more responsibility for coordinating research instead of primarily fundraising.
When he came on board, McGinnis said, “there was a great deal of mistrust within certain groups within the institute and between the institute and the community because of broken promises and unmet expectations.”
With effort and time, many of those relationships have been mended, McGinnis said. He pointed to more than $11 million in recent contributions to renovate the building and to hire several faculty for information assurance research.
From some perspectives, the institute has been a resounding success.
The stylish building at 67th and Pacific Streets launched the development of the South Campus for UNO, ushering in a wave of new construction and enrollment growth that transformed the former commuter campus. Nearly all its students — “99.9 percent,” McGinnis said — have jobs waiting for them upon graduation.
It is a key part of NU's new University Affiliated Research Center, a partnership with the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base that's anticipated to bring in millions of dollars for high-tech, high-security research.
It is launching new research initiatives with the University of Nebraska Medical Center for using computers and robotics in medicine. Its engineers and computer scientists also are contributing to efforts at both UNL and UNO to develop environmentally sustainable buildings and renewable energy.
Although enrollment tapered from a peak of about 1,738 in 2007 to 1,650 in the fall of 2011, it is back on the rise. Today, the institute has about 1,950 students, with a goal to reach 2,700 by 2020.
The institute has nearly doubled its research awards, from $5 million in 2009 to more than $9 million this year, with a goal of reaching $25 million per year in 2020.
However, the consultants described that as “modest” progress toward the institute's goals of international prominence, high-quality academic programs and meeting workforce needs for high-tech personnel.
The report, prepared in a month at a cost of about $50,000, concluded that the institute remains the best vehicle for expanding NU's engineering programs in the Omaha metropolitan area. But it said more work was needed to coordinate research priorities between the partner entities and to develop productive working relationships among those groups.
It noted that the College of Engineering has “aggressive” plans to expand its presence in Omaha and that UNL's senior vice chancellor of academic affairs has pledged the faculty and resources to make the effort succeed.
Meanwhile, the College of Information Science has gained recognition as one of UNO's top programs and partly fills the need for computer professionals in the Omaha area.
Opponents of the proposed engineering merger said the focus on the Kiewit Institute diverts attention from what they say is the real concern: NU's commitment to providing engineering instruction in Omaha that is oriented to Omaha business needs.
Former UNO Chancellor Del Weber said restructuring the Kiewit Institute is not the answer. He said NU needs to conduct a full study of whether to establish an engineering college as part of UNO. Engineering instruction was discontinued at UNO in the early 1970s, soon after it became part of the University of Nebraska system.
John Smith of Omaha, a businessman and an engineer who serves on the advisory board for the institute's Omaha-based computer and electronics engineering program, also makes the case for an Omaha-run engineering college.
“When will Omaha get a voice with regards to the engineering programs that drive the economic development of the metro area?” he asked.
Freeman and Giddens, however, rejected the idea of a separate engineering college in Omaha as expensive and wasteful. A separate college “flies in the face of common sense and good investment policy,” the report said.
B.J. Reed, senior vice chancellor of academic affairs at UNO, will be among the officials reviewing the institute in response to the Freeman-Giddens report.
“We appreciate the opportunity to offer input about advancing this important UNO institute,” he said.
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the Lincoln campus is working to adapt its plans for Omaha engineering into a business plan to provide a better idea of how it will work.
“The issue is whether we are producing what Omaha needs in terms of engineering graduates and research,” he said.
Freeman and Giddens said they believe the institute can be the springboard for new achievements by UNL and UNO.
“There is no silver bullet and no guilty party,” they wrote. “As we have noted, (Kiewit Institute) is a complex organization within a complex organization. It was created to encourage and support new and bold things, a laudable objective in its own right.”