Vice chancellor outlines sources of UNL budget problems


Faculty who want to help UNL through its budget problems should work on two things, Mike Zeleny, vice chancellor for business and finance, told the Faculty Senate Tuesday, May 7.

First, faculty members should do whatever they can to help increase enrollment—graduate and undergraduate, in-state and out-of-state, Zeleny said.

Second, they should lobby for an increase in tuition. Putting the university on a balanced budget, he said, is impossible without some increase in tuition. Zeleny said he had recently attended a meeting of Big Ten business and finance leaders, and almost all of them reported looking at tuition increases.

The major drivers of the University of Nebraska’s budget problems, Zeleny said, are inflation and declining enrollment.

Inflation, a residual effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, has made almost everything the university does and buys more expensive, Zeleny said. Everything connected with facilities—building, maintaining, operating—has increased dramatically in cost, he said. Workforce retention is more expensive because pay has been increasing since the pandemic making it easy for workers to move to better-paying jobs. Insurance, for health care and other needs, is another area where costs are increasing. In addition, students are arriving with more needs for and expectations of services, he said, requiring UNL to provide remedial services, social services and other amenities.

While costs have been increasing, the university’s major sources of income have been decreasing. Zeleny said the state provided about 30 percent of the university’s budget in the early 1990s. That has declined to about 13 percent. Even though the state may increase its allocation to the university 2 to 3 percent a year, that still means it is paying for less of what the university needs to operate. This, too, is a problem other Big Ten schools are experiencing, no matter whether they are in red states or blue states, Zeleny said.

The other major source of income—student tuition—has been declining because enrollment has been declining. The peak for enrollment at UNL was over 26,000 in 2017, Zeleny said. For 2023-24, the enrollment was 23,600,

Looking ahead, Zeleny said the goal of regaining membership in the Association of American Universities will add to UNL’s expenses. Zeleny asked Tim Gay, a member of the Senate and a professor of physics, what it might cost to add five or six faculty in physics who either are or are likely to become members of the National Academy of Sciences. Gay estimated that it would cost about $100 million. Zeleny said regaining membership in the AAU would require adding similarly accomplished faculty in other areas. The overall cost could be between $200 million and $400 million, he said.

Before Zeleny spoke to the senators, Chancellor Rodney Bennett told them he expected UNL would be asked to make more budget cuts. He said he will meet soon with the chief financial officer of the NU system, which will give him a better idea of the budget future.

Bennett said, however, that he expected there will be a pool of money for salary increases this year. The size of the pool and how it will be allocated are yet to be decided, he said.

Deborah Minter, associate professor of English and the out-going past president of the Senate, asked Bennett about the political climate in the state for classroom and research activities. In some states, politicians or outside groups have challenged the content of college classes or the lines of research conducted by faculty. Minter specifically pointed to requests for course syllabi from outsiders. Bennett said people often ask him about diversity, equity and inclusion programs, which he finds unfortunate in light of the need for today’s graduates to be able to work in ethnically diverse environments.

Bennett said he was not aware of any requests for syllabi, but he said faculty should consult with their chairs or deans if they confront political challenges to course content or their research.

In response to a question, Bennett said he expected Troy Dannen, the new athletic director, will have an announcement soon, possibly in the next two or three days, about plans for Memorial Stadium renovation and how they might affect the Schorr Center.

The Tuesday meeting of the Senate is its last of the academic year. It is also the meeting at which new officers are elected. Pete Eklund, a professor in the Glenn Korff School of Music, assumed the position of Senate president. Kelli Kopocis, an associate professor of practice in the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction, became the past president.

The senators elected John Shrader, an associate professor in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, as president-elect. Signe Boudreau, an associate professor in libraries, was re-elected secretary. Elected to fill three seats on the Senate Executive Committee were Eveline Baesu, an associate professor in the College of Engineering; Rich Leiter, a professor in the College of Law; and Susan VanderPlas, an assistant professor of statistics.