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University of Nebraska-Lincoln Executive Vice Chancellor Elizabeth Spiller speaks at the EVC Presentation in the Nebraska Union on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Elizabeth Spiller, one of four final candidates for the position of executive vice chancellor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, shared her views on what it means to be a land-grant school, as well as her plans for increasing access to education at UNL during a presentation. 

The University of California, Davis College of Letters and Science dean held her presentation at  3 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8, in the Nebraska Union Auditorium. During the presentation, she said she believes her successes at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and UC Davis can be replicated at UNL. 

She said she wants to accomplish her goals by increasing access for disadvantaged students, improving the opportunities to innovate and participate in research and increasing interdisciplinary studies.   

Spiller outlined four main facets of a modern land-grant school: access, opportunity, innovation and lifelong experiential learning. She said that her time at Virginia Tech and UC Davis has presented her with the tools she needs to implement and strengthen these ideals on UNL’s campus. 

At Virginia Tech, Spiller advocated for equal access to education for everyone, including first generation and Pell Grant students. While at Virginia Tech, where financial aid was awarded only in the first year, Spiller said she worked to restructure all of their scholarships into four-year scholarships to ensure that financial aid was given to students every year.

She said she helped create the Destiny Scholars Program which helped financially disadvantaged students and underrepresented minorities afford college by providing a four-year scholarship.  

Spiller said they were able to offer the scholarship to 5% of incoming students by the time she left. It ended up having a 53% yield rate on the students it was offered to, and there was a 98% retention rate of those students, according to Spiller. 

“All the studies show that if you can reduce debt by as little as $1,000 for students in the bottom two quartiles, the likelihood of them persisting goes up by more than 10%,” she said.

Spiller said she intends to use this data to improve accessibility and retention rates for students at UNL by focusing on making the financial aid system more accommodating. 

Spiller also said she believes that collaboration between colleges is important for innovation and experiential learning. Part of this approach, she said, is an emphasis on bringing together people in multiple disciplines to solve more advanced problems. 

“We get problems by things that are inherently intractable,” Spiller said. “They cannot be solved by traditional discipline-based methods. They just can’t. Because, if they could, we would have solved food security already.”

Spiller said she followed through on this initiative by partnering with the Virginia Tech University Libraries to create a digital commons center that allowed students to do more than research. 

“We would train students in courses, and then the students would have opportunities to work on research with faculty members, and, in the final stage, they would do their own independent research,” she said.

If chosen as UNL’s executive vice chancellor, Spiller said she would improve opportunities for innovation and independent research through similar means. 

Spiller also promoted the idea of public-private partnerships, or allowing colleges to partner with state and local governments as well as corporations, and said that public funding is much less robust than it used to be. If chosen, Spiller said she intends to increase the amount of public-private partnerships that UNL is a part of in order to increase funding and opportunities for students. 

Citing the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862, Spiller said she is dedicated to ensuring UNL stays consistent with its roots of what it means to be a land grant school.

“I can’t say this more strongly,” she said. “A university is not a bureaucratic or administrative structure; it is an intellectual project.”

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