The first 100 days.
That’s the time period Joanne Li said she will need to evaluate and set her goals as the new chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Having fully assumed the chancellorship on Thursday, Li, 56, intends to immediately be a visible presence on campus.
“I will spend time with every single college and every single unit to really hear them out. They will be my teachers,” she said in an interview with The World-Herald. “These 100 days will be critical for me as a chancellor of UNO to learn not only the culture but to really celebrate some of the achievements our programs have already attained.”
Li succeeds Dr. Jeffrey Gold, who had been serving as chancellor at both UNO and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Gold will remain chancellor at UNMC.
The University of Nebraska Board of Regents unanimously approved Li’s selection at a May 1 special meeting after more than 50 candidates applied for the position. NU President Ted Carter said then that Li embodied all of the qualities sought by the regents.
“She is absolutely focused on students,” he said.
For Li, hitting the ground running has been her mantra in both her life and career. Born in Hong Kong into a family of modest means, Li was a first-generation college student in 1988 when she enrolled as a finance major at Florida State University.
Finances nearly kept Li from finishing her first semester. She relied on a gift from a friend to cover tuition.
“I was lucky,” she said.
Li empathizes with students who are not financially fortunate. As she earned her doctorate from FSU in 1997 and subsequently climbed the leadership ranks at other universities, she always has sought to work with students to ensure that they remain on track. That included working one-on-one with students to help them find ways to pay for each class.
“This kind of incentive actually promotes very good stewardship,” Li said. “It causes students to think, ‘Someone invested in me. Someone wants me to be successful. I am going to come back, and I am going to finish college.’ Through that kind of high-tech and high-touch (approach), we’re able to help a lot of students.”
That approach helped dramatically improve the graduation rate at Florida International University’s College of Business, where Li served as dean. In 2017, her first year, the business school’s graduation rate was 29% — a figure Li said was normal for a professional school.
This past academic year, the graduation rate was 71%.
“We weren’t going to settle for normal,” she said. “We set out to do great things.”
Now, as the first woman of color to serve in the role and the first Asian American to hold an executive leadership position in the University of Nebraska system, Li intends to bring that personal touch to the more than 15,000 students enrolled in the university’s undergraduate and graduate programs.
UNO has made some headway in its efforts to boost student diversity. The percentage of students of color has improved from 32% in 2016 to 36% in 2020. But Li emphasizes the importance of not getting lost in the numbers.
“To me, every single student is a student. Not a number,” she said. “We’re going to work very hard to serve this community. We want them to have a high-quality education. We want them to graduate without a lot of financial stress and burden.”
UNO's second-year student retention rate
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Li comes to UNO at a time when second-year student retention rates have remained steady for the most recent years for which data is available. In 2017, the university recorded a 74.6% second-year retention rate. That rate dipped slightly to 74% in 2018 before rebounding to 76.9% in 2019.
Li said the university remains committed to research, including in the fields of counterterrorism, biomechanics and criminology.
“I think this is important for an urban university to help keep Omaha as a vibrant city,” she said. “We need to develop talent and work with our partners and employers to retain the talent here.”
Even after students graduate, Li said, UNO will remain invested in them. That includes working with local employers to place new graduates in jobs.