After nearly two years of preparation, the Rural Futures Institute gained final approval from the University of Nebraska Board of Regents in late October.
Now, plans can proceed for the institute, which aims to empower rural America to cope with the challenges of a growing world population, strained government budgets and a 21st-century economy.
Ronnie Green, NU vice president and Harlan vice chancellor of the university’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said the institute will use faculty expertise across all four NU campuses to develop strategies to achieve long-term success for rural regions of Nebraska.
Green said he and several others have been developing the idea for the Rural Futures Institute for a little less than two years.
The impetus for the institute, according to Green, is Nebraska’s recent population loss in rural communities.
“All but 16 of the 93 counties in the state have lost population on a pretty steady basis in the first decade of the 21st century,” Green said.
Green said the institute will look at ways to keep rural areas healthy down the road.
“Rather than look(ing) at the past and trying to hold on to the past – what is the state going to look like 100 years from now?” Green said.
Regent Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, said the Rural Futures Institute will seek ways for small communities that have lost population to retain their core critical services including improving leadership, student-led service projects and developing entrepreneurship.
“But do it in a way that is cost-effective, efficient, and in a way that makes sense for a town of their size,” he said.
For example, Hassebrook said, small schools could efficiently handle a resource strain by banding together and sharing a superintendent.
The Rural Futures Institute will also focus on building leadership. Hassebrook said the university system can lend its expertise to prepare people from rural areas to be more effective leaders.
“The most successful communities are the communities with the strong leaders,” Hassebrook said. “That’s another area where the university has a lot to contribute. (University of Nebraska at Omaha) has the best program in the system in public administration.”
Programs like UNO’s can “look at what rural communities can do to foster their own leadership, which can lead to a better future,” Hassebrook said. He said each NU campus has different elements that can contribute to building a better rural future, such as the Center for Rural Research and Development at the University of Nebraska Kearney, which works to meet the education and training needs of businesses in rural Nebraska, according to its website.
Mark Gustafson, interim director for the University of Nebraska Rural Initiative, said the institute in its preliminary stages has been gathering input from communities and community leaders across the state through focus groups and a conference that took place on May 8-10 in Lincoln. Gustafson said community involvement is a priority for the institute.
“We want to engage with the community very early in the process,” Gustafson said. “We want (communities) to be a part of the decision-making process.”
The group is beginning to plan a second conference for next January.
Another example Hassebrook cited was UNMC’s ability to enable people from rural communities to pursue a medical degree and possibly return to their rural community to practice.
The Rural Futures Institute will initially be housed at UNL, but has yet to be designed. Green said there’s a possibility it will be housed at Nebraska Innovation Campus, the 232-acre site of the former state fairgrounds.
While the institute is still in its infancy, Hassebrook said the next step is hiring a director.
“That’s really going to be key, to get the right person to lead it,” he said. “Then we can really start building the program.”
Gustafson said the director of the Rural Futures Institute should be someone who is very passionate, very well-connected and a great communicator. He said he wants to build a strong foundation for the new director without leaving him or her out of too many decisions.
“We are trying to build a strong base across all university campuses,” Gustafson said. “We hope that all four are very engaged in the process. We understand that there are going to be challenges, but there are people who are willing to make a go of it and see what happens.”