Published Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:23 pm
clarity of vision a big plus
World-Herald editorial: Sense of mission strong at UNK

It’s true that a recent storm struck the University of Nebraska at Kearney and peeled back part of the library roof, causing water damage to some of the books on the second floor. But don’t be fooled: UNK has impressive momentum these days, undeterred by that temporary setback.

In an era when so many medium-sized institutions of higher learning make the mistake of trying to copy larger universities, UNK takes a different, sensible path.

It pursues a clear long-term mission: Maintaining a high quality of instruction and student support, with an emphasis on individualized attention.

While major boosts in enrollment make strategic sense for the larger campuses in the NU system, UNK commendably focuses on keeping its student and faculty numbers manageable in order to maintain a low student-teacher ratio (currently at 16-to-1). That emphasis makes sense, given that around 40 percent of UNK’s 5,300 undergraduates are first-generation college students.

Chancellor Doug Kristensen and other UNK leaders have shown that they understand the school’s distinctive niche and are making sound strategic decisions to support that mission.

A great example comes from the UNK library itself. The west end of the library’s second floor took the brunt of the storm damage, but look at what’s going on at the east end, which was essentially unscathed.

The east end is home to UNK’s Learning Commons, a large, heavily used set of group study areas packed with computers, tables and writing boards where students gather to work on group projects and receive help from writing coaches and peer tutors. The Learning Commons is a key resource in UNK’s efforts to boost academic achievement.

“It’s a collaborative learning environment,” Kristensen told The World-Herald. “It’s been really beneficial to our first-generation students as far as their study skills and preparing for finals.”

UNK has worked hard to build a sense of place around central campus. Although renovations of residence halls cause unavoidable housing complications during construction, the end results from two recent projects at UNK are impressive.

First was the thoughtful decision to retain the vintage 1930s interior flavor of the venerable Men’s Hall for honors students. Second was the imaginative creation of University View, a glass-lined lounge, study lounge and meeting room in the attractive archway at the Antelope-Nester residence hall complex. (A future NU Board of Regents meeting surely is in the offing there.)

Among other positive developments:

>> Strong public use of UNK facilities, including programs at the state-of-the art planetarium and community sporting events at Foster Field.

>> A growing number of international students (now around 500), with strong recent success in China and South Korea, plus increasing opportunities for UNK’s Nebraska students to study abroad.

>> The selection of Richard Miller, a UNK professor of psychology, as a U.S. Professor of the Year for outstanding undergraduate instruction by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation.

>> A focus by UNK’s more than 30 graduate programs on high-quality instruction and student involvement in research. UNK has more than 1,900 graduate students.

>> A survey in which 75 percent of recent UNK graduates said they plan to stay in Nebraska.

UNK also benefited from impressive philanthropic contributions. Donations from the late Ron and Carol Cope continue to be invaluable on the sports facilities front. And Good Samaritan Hospital was generous with its $1 million gift to support UNK’s landmark allied health venture with the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

That UNK-UNMC collaboration will bring to the Kearney campus new programs that will greatly boost Nebraska’s supply of medical professionals, including nurses, physician assistants, physical therapists, clinical laboratory scientists and radiographers. The allied health complex will be on the far western edge of the UNK campus, adjacent to another Kearney success story, The Buckle.

No, damage from a single storm will not stop the momentum at UNK, a university powered by a clear vision and surehanded leadership.

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