Students, faculty concerned about merging engineering programs in Omaha, Lincoln -
Published Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:48 am
Students, faculty concerned about merging engineering programs in Omaha, Lincoln

LINCOLN — A plan is in place for a new leadership structure at the Peter Kiewit Institute, but changes to the engineering program appear to be the most controversial piece of the long-awaited reform.

The University of Nebraska Board of Regents voted Friday to approve a plan the board hopes will turn the conversation from the Omaha-based engineering institute's potential to its success.

The new governing plan is aimed at alleviating concerns about dysfunction and lack of cooperation at the institute, which was created to foster research and education and address engineering workforce needs in Omaha and statewide.

Campus leaders from Lincoln and Omaha will share responsibility for its future under the plan, which calls for significant investments in research funding, lab and classroom space and hiring 50 new faculty.

But it was a proposal to merge two programs in the engineering school — one based in Lincoln and the other in Omaha — that brought the most disagreement during the regents meeting.

In the proposal, submitted jointly by UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman and UNO Chancellor John Christensen, the electrical engineering program based in Lincoln and computer and electronics engineering program based at the Kiewit Institute in Omaha would be merged into one.

A new bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and a master's degree in engineering for working professionals would be offered in Omaha.

But students and faculty members who spoke to the board expressed concerns that the culture and goals of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering departments are much different.

“The Big Ten vision is fine for UNL,” said Bing Chen, professor in the computer and electronics engineering program based in Omaha. “It meets UNL's mission and culture. It has not, does not and will never meet the needs of Omaha industry or the needs of the Omaha community.”

Chen asked that the board leave untouched what he described as Omaha's “last remaining free-standing engineering department.” The College of Engineering programs housed in Omaha are still considered UNL programs.

The student regent and Faculty Senate president at the University of Nebraska at Omaha also expressed concerns about the plan.

Martha Spangler, who represents UNO on the board, said the new structure for the institute sounded like the right way to get the job done, but she wants to make sure that students and faculty concerns are heard.

W. Meredith Bacon, UNO Faculty Senate president, said she also supports the plan, but the faculty hopes to see more study on how the merger will affect engineering students before it's done.

Perlman said he has postponed implementing the merger because of opposition, but with the board's support he intends to move forward. A strategic plan on the changes will be due to the board by Dec. 31.

The Kiewit Institute opened in 1999 to build more engineering and computer expertise in Omaha and create a multicampus partnership with Omaha business leaders.

It houses UNL engineering programs, UNO information science and technology programs as well as the nonprofit PKI Technology Development Corp. and the Holland Computing Center.

A consultant's report in July found that the institute was being held back by “dysfunctionalities” in structure and operations. Leaders were not working together and resources were depleted by the institute's problematic history, leading to distrust and disappointment, the consultants said.

Christensen said the new strategic plan for the institute will focus on research and educational opportunities that connect to Omaha's workforce needs.

“We collectively believe the original PKI mission is clear and that it's still relevant,” Christensen said.

The institute's executive director and deans of the college of engineering and information science and technology will work together under the senior vice chancellors at both Lincoln and Omaha as an academic advisory council, making the leadership structure similar to other programs, Perlman said.

“Their involvement has been a piece that has been missing for some time and kept us from reaching the full potential of what PKI can be,” he said.

The advisory council will develop an annual operational plan with the vice chancellors each year.

Plans call for doubling annual research funding within five years and increasing externally funded research expenditures by 15 percent over the next three years.

The plan calls for 50 new faculty positions: 30 in Omaha and 20 in Lincoln. It also calls for 35,000 to 40,000 square feet of classroom and office space to house them.

Regent Hal Daub, a former Omaha mayor, said metrics to measure the Kiewit Institute's success better come sooner than later.

“I've had enough talk,” Daub said. “This is an attempt to kick it into high gear and get it going.”

Daub said the plan represents significant progress in the ongoing battle to make the institute a leader in education and research.

But he wants to see success in the next two years or he plans to push for a second, separate engineering school in Omaha.

“If we can settle once and for all the argument over engineering between Lincoln and Omaha, that's the most constructive result that can come,” Daub said.

In other action, the board:

— Approved a three-year contract extension for NU President J.B. Milliken and a 2.5 percent pay increase, to $431,276 annually.

— Approved a request from UNO to increase the cost of its planned sports arena by $11.6 million, to a total of $87.9 million.

World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: Kate Howard Perry    |   402-444-3185    |  

Kate writes about Nebraska's community colleges, state colleges and university system.

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