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Tim Clare

University of Nebraska Board of Regents member Tim Clare.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s recent announcement of a gift from Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc. to help build one of the premier engineering programs in the country is game-changing news for our students, the NU system and Nebraska’s workforce.

And the partnerships powering Nebraska Engineering forward – involving the university, the private sector, the Legislature and governor – are exactly what our state needs more of as we seek to build a competitive and prosperous economy for the future.

The stakes in this regard are high. Nebraska will need 15,000 new workers in engineering and computer science fields in the years ahead.

Similar growth is projected across the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) spectrum. While we’ve made impressive strides across the University of Nebraska in attracting talent to our campuses and adding programs to meet industry needs, frankly, as a state, we’re not yet doing enough to fill the growing gap.

UNL Engineering Dean Lance Pérez perfectly conveyed the sense of urgency we should all feel in a recent presentation to the Board of Regents: “It is in STEM areas where job growth and the future of the economy of the United States and Nebraska is. We either have to make the decisions necessary to participate in that growth, or we won’t be able to participate in that growth.”

The bold plans underway at the College of Engineering tell me Nebraska has decided to participate in the growth.

We are grateful to CEO Bruce Grewcock and Kiewit for their $20 million contribution toward a new engineering facility that will help us recruit and retain the best students, faculty and staff. We’re also indebted to NEBCO CEO Jim Abel and his wife Mary for donating land for the project. And next month, we will begin a major renovation of our existing engineering facilities funded largely through a deferred maintenance partnership between the university and state that the Legislature and Gov. Pete Ricketts approved in 2016.

These contributions – public and private – happen because elected leaders and donors alike recognize the talents of our students, faculty and staff and want to be partners in helping us grow. That in turn benefits Nebraska and our economy.

With their support, the opportunities ahead are as exciting as they are numerous. Pérez has set an ambitious goal to increase enrollment in the College of Engineering by 50%, to about 5,000 students, within the decade.

Dean Pérez and Chancellor Ronnie Green are also commendably focused on expanding partnerships not just with industry but with other university campuses, recognizing, as Interim President Susan Fritz has noted, that engineering growth is among the highest priorities of the NU system.

We will do all this work while staying true to the land-grant mission of access that informed the university’s founding more than 150 years ago. I could not be prouder that UNL enrolls the most academically talented and diverse freshman class in its history. Even as we celebrate the fact we are the best value in the Big Ten, we know that in view of the workforce crisis, we will need to be even more creative, collaborative and aggressive in making the University of Nebraska the destination of choice for all students in the state.

I see similar opportunities powered by partnerships across the university. The University of Nebraska at Omaha just announced the largest grant in campus history to its biomechanics program, the result of a decision years ago by the university and private partners to invest in a workforce-critical area where UNO could be a national leader.

The University of Nebraska at Kearney recently unveiled plans for a regional engagement center at the public-private University Village that will be a linchpin for rural economic development. The University of Nebraska Medical Center is preparing to open a new home for its virtual learning facility and a training center for healthcare workers fighting infectious diseases – another initiative made possible with philanthropic support and investment by the Legislature and governor.

The needs of our state demand bold solutions. The UNL College of Engineering’s recent successes – built on partnerships and a laser focus on what’s best for our students and the state – offer us a smart and strategic path forward.

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Tim Clare is chairman of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents. He lives in Lincoln.

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