During a recent community visit some 250 miles away from our campuses, a man stood up to make a point. He said: “One chancellor overseeing two universities [was] a great idea.”
Our regular visits to Nebraska’s vibrant rural communities – including this trip to the towns of McCook, Gothenburg, and Holdrege, Nebraska – offer an opportunity for us to discuss their needs.
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From health to workforce, communication to transportation, questions and comments frequently cover the gamut, but this specific comment was a surprise. In a town of just 3,500, residents were paying attention to the shared leadership of the University of Nebraska Medical Center and University of Nebraska at Omaha.
And why not? In the last two years, the synergistic relationship between the universities – one that has continually strengthened the brand identity for both institutions – has evolved into something that is thriving and nationally unique.
The experiment began in early 2017 as a means of stability following the retirement of long-time UNO Chancellor John Christensen. The dual appointment was not meant as a dollar-saving initiative, but rather an opportunity for steady continuation of leadership in a community that deeply cares about our university campuses and their unique missions.
At the time, University of Nebraska’s then-president Hank Bounds anticipated that opportunities might be found between the “unique – and in many cases complementary – missions of Nebraska’s public academic health science center and its metropolitan university.” None of us could have anticipated the depth and breadth of the partnerships that have since followed.
This September, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community members will gather for an investiture formalizing the UNO Chancellor appointment. The investiture’s theme, Access to Exceptional, speaks not just to how UNO impacts our communities through education, research and service, but also the synergies that have grown through increased communication and collaboration with our medical center and all of the other sister campuses.
Few universities have a way to create academic partnerships with an academic medical center; certainly, we have seen mergers, but not the organic collaboration we are seeing in Omaha. From new research program partnerships to tech transfer and commercialization efforts such as securing patents, new relationships under shared leadership have created strong tailwinds, speeding the progress of both campuses.
Together, we have jointly established a new major for medical humanities and leveraged the strengths of both institutions to enhance our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Shared leadership positions have built stronger student support efforts and added resources to important campus functions, such as global engagement and public safety.
The relationship can be likened to the lapel pins that leaders of both universities wear – separate and distinct campus icons fastened together with a bridge linking the two closely together. UNO remains Nebraska’s public metropolitan university, an institution dedicated to transforming and improving quality of life locally, nationally and globally. UNMC continues to serve as Nebraska’s public academic medical center, transforming lives to create a healthy future for all individuals and communities through premier educational programs, innovative research and extraordinary patient care.
The beauty of the relationship is that each institution is able to better achieve their mission by collaborating with the other, yet respecting and building upon their respective unique missions.
UNO’s use of Access to Exceptional in its branding is only a year old, but the philosophy behind it is older than our nation and it exemplifies the very best of this partnership. Higher education is a social contract–a promise that our work will be relevant and responsive to the needs of our community. It is a simple idea, but at the same time a transformational thought.
Through increased partnership under shared leadership, UNO and UNMC are showing what is possible when opportunities are approached together, bringing the best out of both institutions. Together, these campuses are fulfilling the promise of higher education, building a foundation of trust that will allow us to collectively build a better future. And it is my hope that in so doing, we are forging a path for an exceptional future for our community and for others to follow.