The Identity of an Urban University

Chancellor Joanne Li speaks at UNO commencement.
UNO Chancellor Joanne Li believes education should be about inclusion, not exclusion.
By Robyn Murray

Omaha Philanthropists Invest in Leadership at UNO

Joanne Li did not grow up in Omaha. But while she is relatively new to the city — she became chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2021 — the Hong Kong native’s passion for Omaha is clear. 

Pointing to redevelopment projects, such as the RiverFront transformation that encompasses 72 acres and three downtown parks, Li said Omaha is a city where people care about each other and come together to achieve great things.

“I find Omaha fascinating,” Li said. “[It is] a very relational town. People work very hard to build relationships. And they work equally hard, if not harder, to maintain the relationship. So that is actually very heartwarming.”

If we successfully provide an affordable, accessible education, we’ll be able to elevate our community.

Li began her academic career in Florida as a first-generation college student. After graduating summa cum laude with her finance degree and her doctorate from Florida State University, she went on to earn her Chartered Financial Analyst designation. She served as dean and professor of finance at the Raj Soin College of Business at Wright State University in Ohio before becoming dean of the Florida International University College of Business, serving 11,000 students. 

At UNO, Li impressed the hiring committee with her passion for the essential responsibility of an urban university, which she believes is to educate by inclusion, not exclusion.

“We know that we have to do right by our community,” Li said. “If we successfully provide an affordable, accessible education … we’ll be able to elevate our community.”

Approximately 40% of UNO students are first-generation college students, Li said. In addition, more than one-third are eligible for Pell Grants.

“Our job here is to create social and economic mobility that will lead to what I call multigenerational prosperity, developing economic prosperity and mobility for the family,” Li said.

In addition to being “a font of creativity and discovery,” Li said UNO’s responsibilities are threefold: Educate the people of the world; contribute pragmatic research that impacts and improves the community; and serve the community to solve real problems. 

“In any given year, UNO students and faculty donate more than 300,000 hours of community service to this community,” Li said. “And because this is the identity of an urban university … we say let’s understand the challenges of the community; let’s do something that can solve problems for all communities.” 

Li’s community-based vision for UNO helped inspire a $19 million landmark gift to the university from Omaha philanthropists Barbara and Wally Weitz.

“It is thrilling to be a part of a place that is doing the kind of things that are happening at UNO,” Barbara Weitz said. “This institution, and the University of Nebraska as a whole, are incredibly valuable because of the education they provide and for their importance to the economy of the state. We must have well-educated citizens for Nebraska.” 

A former faculty member of UNO and current University of Nebraska regent, Barbara Weitz is most recognizable on campus for her namesake, the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center — a historic building that opened in 2014 and was a result of her vision for UNO as a community-first university. 

In June, Barbara Weitz and her husband, Wally, designated $14 million to create the Weitz Innovation and Excellence Fund and $5 million to establish the Barbara and Wally Weitz Endowed Chair in Higher Education Leadership — a first for the University of Nebraska System as a gift attached to a chancellor’s position. 

“First and foremost, I feel extremely honored to be the first chancellor that will hold an endowed position,” Li said. “Barb and Wally understand how the education leadership pool is getting very tight. They want to send a credible signal, not just for Joanne Li but all the future chancellors, that this university is worth investing in, so let’s make sure that we can get the best leadership in place.” 

Li said the Weitzes’ investment in innovation is visionary and particularly impactful as the university faces budget tightening. 

“It’s a very smart way to incentivize the right behavior,” Li said. “So often universities will not have the opportunity to have what we call ‘financial slack,’ to invest in exciting initiatives that can propel research and improve operations that can bring in efficiencies.”

 Li said universities use every dollar to invest in student success, but that can leave little room to look to the future.

Chancellor Li and UNO students pose for a photo while celebrating I Love NU Day at the Nebraska State Capitol Building in Lincoln, Nebraska on Wednesday, April 5, 2023.
Chancellor Joanne Li celebrating "I Love NU" Day with students at the Nebraska State Capitol.

“Research and development must be intentional,” Li said. The Weitz gift communicates “that we will stand by you, provide you the right aspiration, the right incentive to go and do great things that will bring great returns on investment for this university. It’s an ingenious gift and really timely.” 

The investment reminds Li of what has made Omaha feel like home since her arrival on campus two years ago: a community that cares and aspires to be greater. 

“There is no community better than a community that really believes in itself,” Li said. “So their philanthropic support is a very credible signal to tell the world: This community believes in itself.”

Related Stories

UNO Aviation’s newest flight simulator, a Boeing 737, is flown by students Jonathan Corey and Hunter Pherson.

Learning to Fly

Gemma Ossi is on her way to becoming a professional pilot with the help of a new, privately funded addition at UNO’s Aviation Institute — a Boeing 737 jet simulator.

Read More »