Nebraska administrators hit UI campus, visit headquarters of Big Ten consortium

URBANA – Like thousands of high school students, top academic administrators from the University of Nebraska made a campus visit Wednesday, learning about the University of Illinois, the Big Ten and the consortium of top schools that will now include the Lincoln, Neb., campus.

Ellen Weissinger, who is the equivalent of provost at Nebraska, said her campus has much to offer to Illinois and the Champaign-based Committee on Institutional Cooperation, an organization made up of the Big Ten and the University of Chicago.

In June, Nebraska formally asked to join the Big Ten effective next year, saying the school is more "aligned" with the Big Ten when it comes to academics, culture and athletics than its former conference, the Big 12.

Through the CIC, Nebraska will share courses, particularly in distance learning, as well as academic materials and even study abroad programs, while also participating in a purchasing cooperative that Weissinger said could eventually save her institution millions of dollars.

She said the consortium member will benefit from Nebraska's long-term commitment to distance education, in the most literal sense.

With a stable to dwindling population, 38th in the nation, spread out over 77,000 square miles, Nebraska has for decades brought education to its citizens.

"We've put our faculty on trains" to reach outlying areas, said David Wilson, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. More recently, he said, the university has pioneered in online education.

"We match any schools in CIC on several metrics, including clarity of mission, aggressiveness and a very well-defined sense of academic virtues," Weissinger said.

One area where Nebraska has a clear advantage over Illinois: a stable state government and budget.

Weissinger said Nebraska has a record freshman class with higher educational achievement as well as diversity in part because the state has been able to keep up its payments, in a regional economy that has seen neither the highs nor the lows of the last two decades.

She said Nebraska is "a global leader" in several areas, from entomology to actuarial science to food safety, a national security concern. It has a comprehensive program to digitally enrich documents from the humanities, including Walt Whitman and native Willa Cather, and the world's largest collection of quilts and textiles.

The university has its own supercomputer network, joining the Firefly supercomputer at the Omaha campus and the PrairieFire and Red supercomputers at the Lincoln campus.

The state has a well-developed fiber-optic network to support Internet giants like PayPal, TD Ameritrade and Gallup, all headquartered in Omaha.

Newsweek named Omaha as one of the Top 10 high-tech havens in the nation, with six national fiber-optic networks converging in Omaha.

The university touts that its total research funding has increased 146 percent since 2000, to $122.5 million from all sources. However, the other Big Ten schools average more than $313.7 million in federal research funding alone.

Barbara Allen, the director of the CIC, said Nebraska has much to offer the consortium. She agreed with Weissinger that sharing, particularly in distance learning, will not only enhance the student experience but also make it easier to access.

Each member of the consortium contributes equally, about $200,000 a year. In return, each gains a level of cooperation that Weissinger said was unheard of anywhere else in academia.

"There's a competitiveness in (other) universities that's not productive," she said.

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