UNL students

Students pass between class on the UNL campus in 2015.

Under its 1869 charter, the University of Nebraska described itself as a place for Nebraskans to gain “a rough knowledge of the various branches of literature, science and the arts,” which according to the founding document included departments of geography and “the history of the arts.”

Those two programs, which have been taught at NU since the very beginning, are in jeopardy as the university approaches the 150th anniversary of its founding.

Chancellor Ronnie Green on Monday said UNL might be forced to eliminate geography and art history programs as part of $3.5 million in cuts as lawmakers weigh competing interests within a shrinking state budget.

In all, a total of 115 students majoring in those two programs would be directly affected, a university spokeswoman said.

The warning from Green about the potential end of UNL’s geography department was “like a punch to the gut,” said Jared Stubbendeck, a nontraditional student from Waverly who said he has found a home among the “bright, talented” students in his geography courses.

“It would be a great disservice to Nebraska if the university doesn’t have this program,” said Stubbendeck, 32, a member of the Nebraska Air National Guard, where he serves as an aircraft mechanic crew chief.

Geography isn’t an “old, crusty, dead subject,” Stubbendeck added, but a vehicle for students to learn how to apply multiple disciplines to define a place, including its flora and fauna, shifting political forces, and how cultural values take hold.

“I haven’t had a bad geography course,” he said. “They are substantial and valuable, and in today’s world, reflective.”

Part of the chancellor’s framework for identifying which programs to offer up as sacrifices during what was described as a “serious” round of budget cuts included enrollment, credit hours taken, and degrees awarded.

According to UNL Institutional Research and Planning, only 49 geography majors have graduated since 2011-12.

But the geography department — which includes the first doctoral program of its kind west of the Mississippi — generates an estimated 6,500 credit hours per year, a large portion of which include students seeking general-education requirements.

“It’s a really important subject in a globalizing world,” said David Wishart, a 43-year professor of geography at UNL, and the author of several books about the Great Plains and its people. “Where does Nebraska stand in the world? That’s what geography teaches.”

Wishart said the geography department was ready to begin rebuilding within the UNL College of Arts and Sciences, and last Friday had narrowed a list of potential new directors.

By Friday afternoon, the department learned it would be on another short list — one of the programs targeted for potential cuts — leaving the small department “downhearted,” according to Wishart.

“We met with Chancellor Green and Executive Vice Chancellor Donde Plowman on Monday afternoon, but they were not able to identify any persuasive criteria for eliminating us,” he said. “We can defend ourselves on our record.”

In addition to publishing four books in four years, including the “Atlas of Nebraska” last year — which according to Wishart, NU President Hank Bounds purchased 100 copies to scatter across the administration’s Memorial Stadium skyboxes — the geography department boasts wide profit margins.

Running the geography department costs roughly $575,000, according to UNL’s institutional research, while tuition revenue from students who take geography classes tops $1.4 million.

Stubbendick and Wishart both said dismantling the geography department would change how students and scholars see UNL, both here in Lincoln and around the country.

“There’s been a lot of talk in the last 18 hours about the future of the program,” Stubbendick said.

To Maggie Smith, the thought that UNL’s art history program could be terminated was equally distressing.

Smith, 23, graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan University with a degree in directing and traveled to New York City, where she spent a year working backstage in an off-Broadway production.

She returned to Lincoln last fall to begin studying for a degree in art history, with the goal of eventually becoming a museum curator.

This semester, she’s enrolled in two surveys exploring the history of art from cave paintings to Andy Warhol and what they say about the human condition.

As many as 4,000 credit hours are generated every year in similar classes by UNL students to complete general-education requirements.

“Art is what represents a people at any given point in time,” Smith said. “I think it’s important to look at that and learn from past cultures to see how it’s influenced us today.”

Smith said she learned about the program’s status on the fiscal chopping block from her academic adviser, while the department sent notice to its students Tuesday.

“It felt like a death in the family,” she said. “I’ve worked really hard and this is what I want to be doing, I had a plan and it’s falling apart because of things I don’t agree with.”

Other programs targeted for cuts at the university’s flagship campus include the closing of the Haskell Ag Laboratory in Concord, deep reductions to the Rural Futures Institute that connects UNL students with rural communities for service projects, the electronics engineering bachelor’s degree, and teachers' endorsement programs in French, Latin and Russian languages, as well as business, marketing and information technology.

NU President Hank Bounds said Tuesday the proposed cuts were prepared at the request of Sen. John Stinner of Gering, who asked NU "to be prepared to discuss the consequences of the cuts."

"This is in part trying to respond to that request, but also to show what happens if the Legislature chooses to go down this pathway," Bounds said. "We don't have a choice but to move forward with a sense of urgency."

Lawmakers probably won’t send a budget bill to the desk of Gov. Pete Ricketts for signing until late March or early April.

Green would then invoke the budget reduction process at UNL and offer more-concrete recommendations to the Academic Planning Committee, which would review the proposals, hold public hearings, and consider data tied to the chancellor’s plan.

That process has not been started at this time, said Ken Bloom, a professor of physics and the chair of the Academic Planning Committee.

“The programs that have been named publicly are excellent examples of the opportunities that could be lost to the UNL students should they be eliminated,” Bloom said in an email. “But from the point of view of the APC process, these should only be considered as potential targets for budget reduction in the future.”

If a new budget reduction process is invoked, Bloom said the committee will work with Green “to help provide the best possible outcomes for the University in this difficult situation."

In addition to illustrating the consequences of the potential budget cuts, which could top $69 million based on Ricketts' plan to strip $11.4 million in state funding this year and $23.2 million next year, Bounds said NU will chart a different course.

Instead of the $557 million in state funds NU would begin the next biennium with, Bounds will ask the Legislature to restore the university's funding to $580 million in 2018-19.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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