Chartering the University of Nebraska a sesquicentennial ago and establishing a prairie university to promote liberal and practical education under the Morrill Act 1863 was a bold, audacious and risky proposition.
It was also a visionary leap forward for the state, said Ronnie Green, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's 20th chancellor, one that would continue paying off for decades, even centuries, to come.
In an hourlong State of the University address Tuesday afternoon, Green told of UNL's humble beginnings as a land-grant institution, with only five faculty and 20 students pursuing a collegiate-level education.
Through the ongoing transformation of Lincoln and Nebraska across time, two world wars and economic booms and busts, Green said UNL has relied upon the vision and courage of its leaders to continue moving into the future.
When the first 130 students matriculated in 1871, most of whom were pursuing Latin preparatory work, there were five faculty members to instruct them, Green explained.
UNL's annual operating budget of $1.3 billion, nearly 26,000 students, and $308 million in research funding demonstrates just how much the university has grown over the last 15 decades, Green said.
"I can only imagine that our predecessors who built this great institution would be amazed — more likely blown away — at the state of the university," he said from the Lied Center for Performing Arts stage.
Green asked the university to celebrate the momentum gained over time while also pausing to recognize what he called the local and national "headwinds for higher education," including budgetary pressures, changes in federal policy and declining numbers of high school graduates and international enrollments.
He also cited "increased racist behavior" — an issue that took center stage at UNL nearly one year ago — and heightened awareness of mental health challenges faced by students.
The chancellor, now in his third year leading UNL, also addressed the censure of the university administration by the American Association of University Professors last summer for violating a faculty member's due process and academic freedom.
While continuing to dispute the findings, Green said he has been encouraged by the work of administrators, faculty members and others to review the university's policies and procedures moving forward.
"While these headwinds have indeed been stiff at times, we have been and continue to be steadfast in our efforts to confront them," Green said.
Green said UNL's past and present experiences should be instructive for the institution's next 25 years, culminating in 2044.
A strategic-planning team — the Nebraska 150 Commission — tasked with envisioning the next generation at UNL completed its work in December, outlining a vision where UNL is "unparalleled among public research universities in access, opportunity, innovation, and lifelong experiential learning."
Students in the next quarter-century will co-create their experiences on campus alongside faculty and staff, Green said, to "spark curiosity, lead to demonstrated achievement, and deepen the capacity for analysis and reflection."
They will also be responsible for enhancing the quality of life in Nebraska and beyond through research and creative thinking to solve what Green calls "wicked problems" — the societal challenges faced locally, nationally and globally.
Green said UNL will become a place where "every person and every interaction will matter," fostering affordability and accessibility, as well as diverse and inclusive experiences for all individuals.
Finally, the chancellor told the crowd of more than 600 that UNL will "build communities" by taking the work done at the university out into the world.
Acknowledging his vision as lofty — but insisting it is attainable, and that the university is hard at work charting a course for the next 25 years — Green said UNL's past is a prologue.
"The choices we make today, like those made by our predecessors in the previous 15 decades, impact not just the generations represented in this room, or the young generation that is in our lecture halls, laboratories, recital halls and the field today," he said, "but for generations to come.
"Just as we stand on the shoulders of those who came before, they will stand on ours," Green added. "What an awesome responsibility and opportunity."