After a grueling search process, UNO announced the appointment of Dr. Joanne Li as the new chancellor on May 1. She became the first woman of color to serve as chancellor at UNO, and the first Asian-American to hold an executive leadership role in the entire NU system.
Li, 56, is a quaint woman with a powerfully warm presence who can usually be spotted in a color-coordinated skirt suit. When we met, she wore a hot pink matching set as we chatted in her large office on the top floor of the Eppley Administration Building.
Before Li came into the picture, the search for a chancellor was long and unsuccessful. After John Christensen retired in 2017, UNMC chancellor Dr. Jeffrey Gold was named the interim chancellor for UNO, undertaking the uncommon role of guiding two colleges at once. The search for a new chancellor was indefinitely paused after a nationwide search in 2017 failed to turn up any promising candidates, and Gold’s ‘interim’ position lasted for nearly four years.
As often said, good things come to those who wait. Li was scouted for the position in the early months of 2021 after the search process began again in late 2020, and she became a clear frontrunner by April.
Li has been living in Omaha since late May to prepare for her first year as chancellor. Besides being shocked at the availability of good ramen, she was impressed by the welcoming environment that she stepped into.
“The surprise is that, in a very short time, Omaha citizens allow you to get very close to them,” she said. “Your friendship organically grows very fast, because people here are very warm. I have loved all the cities that I’ve lived in—LA, Miami, Boston—but here, the magical thing is, in a very short time, you get very warm to people very fast.”
Li Grew up in Hong Kong and came to the United States to pursue her studies at Florida State University. Her intelligence and drive powered her through an undergraduate degree in finance and economics, graduating summa cum laude in three and a half years.
After graduating, Li was content with her bachelor’s degree. She considered returning to Hong Kong to continue her education or enter the workforce, but her professors and mentors at FSU were not keen on letting her go easily. With a little convincing, she enrolled in the Ph.D. program for finance and corporate governance, graduating in 1997. She went on to achieve her Chartered Financial Analyst certification in 2001.
As a first-generation student, Li speaks passionately about the impact that financial aid had on her education. She was able to secure full-ride scholarships for both programs at FSU, and she now works to make sure that other students like her have access to the same opportunities.
“Truly, I am sitting in front of you as a product of scholarship,” she said. “I am very, very grateful for what this country has done for me. So, I make it my mission to work for public universities.”
Li began her professional career at Loyola College in Maryland, the only private institution she has worked for. There, she was employed first as an assistant professor before being awarded tenure and working to reorganize the governance structure of the college.
In 2006, she accepted a position at Towson University as the chair of the finance department. After taking a year off from academia to work as a CFA curriculum director, she returned to her position at Towson until 2012.
Continuing her service to public institutions, Li assumed the role of dean at the Raj Soin College of Business at Wright State University in July of 2012. But even with all of her other accolades, it was her accomplishments as the dean of Florida International University’s College of Business that caught the attention of UNO’s search committee.
“With my team, in just four years, we were able to change the four-year graduation rate from 29%to 71%,” Li said. “People asked, ‘how did you do it?’ and I just say, ‘obsession.’”
UNO’s four-year graduation rate could use some boosting, too—in 2017, only 21% of students graduated in four years.
The graduation rate increase isn’t the only remarkable statistic. Under Li’s leadership, 40 new staff members were hired, including 25 people of color and 12 women. The number of Black staff members increased by 20%.
Her status as an immigrant, a first-generation student and an Asian American woman in such an important leadership role helps her understand the importance of representation at every level of administration.
“I have a profound appreciation for what the Nebraska University system has given me,” Li said. “It’s something very special as a woman, as Asian, as a woman of color, as an international student. Not only having the opportunity to work with wonderful people and serve this student body, but also having the opportunity to send a signal to the students: There are a lot of opportunities out there for you.”
Now, Li plans to put her obsession to work and continue communicating with students, staff, faculty and alumni to figure out how to move UNO forward. She has held coffee Q&As and town halls to hear from the community, and she plans to continue this hands-on approach throughout her time at UNO.
But despite her big plans and the warm welcome, Li says she can’t consider herself a chancellor just yet.
“It’s great that I am being called a chancellor,” she said. “It’s great that I have this position. But I’m not a chancellor until we can do something together. Then I will accept that title.”