Rural Futures Institute aims to help rural America thrive

Rural Futures Institute aims to help rural America thrive
As the University of Nebraska’s new Rural Futures Institute begins to take shape, one of its chief advocates acknowledges that past higher-education efforts to save rural America have become “road kill.”

This time it’s different, though, said Ronnie Green, NU vice president for agriculture and natural resources. By way of illustrating that, he announced the institute has established a competitive grants program to offer seed money in two key areas -- research and engagement and teaching and engagement. Green said 5 to 10 grants for $70,000 to $150,000 would be given in the former category and 5 to 8 for $15,000 to $25,000 in the latter.

Green, making the announcement at the start of the second day of NU's first Rural Futures Conference Wednesday, encouraged conference attendees to be creative and innovative in proposing grant ideas.

Green told the conference that the new Rural Futures Institute grew out of an earlier NU effort, the Rural Initiative, which he said was a good start but ultimately was not ambitious or sweeping enough. The new institute, which aims to tap into expertise from all four campuses in the NU system, has been the subject of conversations with decision makers and Nebraska citizens over the last year.

The main charge for the 450 people at this week's conference, which concludes today (Thursday), is to help frame ways universities can help rural America meet challenges and thrive.

Green acknowledged the past is littered with what he called "the road kill of good ideas" for rural America that never panned out, but he said the time is right for a sustained partnership between communities and higher education to address the challenges.

"I think we're at a time when the planets are aligning in a way that's really unusual," said Green, who also is Harlan vice chancellor of the university's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. "We have to figure out a way to make this landscape sustainable for the long term."

And in a theme mentioned by others at the conference, Green suggested it's time to change the conversation from what's wrong with rural America to what's right.

"If we frame it negatively, if we think rural America is declining, then guess what? It is," he said. "Rural America is about to experience a renaissance. I really believe that."

Fred Luthans, a professor in UNL's College of Business Administration, said one key to rural America's renaissance is to adopt a "global mindset.

"The future is global," even in rural communities, he said. "We all know that to be true, but we have to get that mindset going."

Universities must set out to change their relationships with communities, to strive for partnerships, several speakers said. Shane Farritor, a UNL engineering professor, said that when he was growing up in Ravenna, when people thought of the university, they thought "the university medical center was where you went when you were really sick" and "you moved to Lincoln (for college), then you went off to somewhere else."

The disconnected nature of the relationship between universities and citizens is largely universities’ fault, Farritor added.

One attendee, Cecil Steward, former dean of UNL's College of Architecture, urged the university to seek "real, interactive relationships" with communities and also warned against separating rural and urban concerns and issues.

In the past, some communities may have felt more "exploited" by universities than a partner, said Jim Cavaye, associate professor for the Institute for Sustainable Regional Development in Australia. Universities must "focus on community interests, community needs," rather than their own, he added.

"When you go out into the communities and say, 'hi, I'm from the university and I'm here to engage you,' the overwhelming reaction is, 'hi, you're irrelevant,'" Cavaye said.

Cavaye said one key to building the university-community partnerships is through personal relationships. Although people may have reservations about institutions, they trust and believe in individuals from those institutions who are sincere and committed.

Luthans urged that the new institute be heavily networked and “horizontal,” rather than following the usual university approach of building an organization with layers and layers of hierarchy.

Farritor said success stories in rural America don't have to be huge to be effective.       

"We as a community need to find small projects that could lead to big wins," he said. And, though he joked it pains him as an engineer to admit it, the university must get past the notion that "there's only one right answer.

"If you all think of your jobs, when was the last time you had a problem that only had one right answer?," he said.

Frans Johansson, a motivational speaker and author of “The Medici Effect,” encouraged participants to embrace diversity of all kinds. “Diversity drives innovation,” he said. “Find inspiration from fields and cultures other than your own.”

The Rural Futures Conference ended May 10 with a series of freewheeling group discussions that will seek to provide further direction to the institute, Green said.

The Rural Futures Conference is supported in part by the Peter Kiewit Foundation and the Robert B. Daugherty Charitable Foundation.