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.

17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
Convicted killer Nikko Jenkins might await his sentence in prison
Crews working to subdue brush fire that may spread to Fontenelle Forest
It's a pursuit of pastel at Spring Lake Park's Easter egg hunt
Financial picture improving for city-owned Mid-America Center
No injuries after fire at midtown's old Mercer Mansion
29-year-old Omahan arrested for 22nd time in Lincoln
Police: Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs
Explosion near 29th, Woolworth damages vehicles
Omaha police arrest man, 19, accused in March shooting
Earth gets its day in the sun at Elmwood Park
Beau McCoy strikes Obama doll in TV ad; Democrats are not happy
Keystone XL pipeline backers blast 'political expediency' as foes hail ruling to delay decision
Nebraska senators to study tax issues over break
Portion of Saddle Creek Road closed after water main break
Teenager arrested after woman's purse is snatched outside Omaha store
Police identify 21-year-old shot in ankle near 30th, W Streets
Cult murderer's death row appeal denied, but execution in limbo
Interstate construction to cause lane shifts, closings in Omaha area
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
< >
Dickson’s Week in Review, April 13-19
On Twitter some guy tweeted that the spring game isn’t taken as seriously as a regular-season contest. What was your first clue? When the head coach entered waving a cat aloft?
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »