As Creighton’s classic identity in Omaha settled in the early 1900s, some community leaders came to believe their city needed a Protestant higher-education alternative. Thus was the University of Omaha born.
It’s hard to find traces of those times at the modern University of Nebraska at Omaha, with its 21st-century urban campus culture and a goal of enrolling 20,000 students by 2020. But one constant has been “the idea that this university should provide an opportunity for the average person, the person who might not be from a wealthy background or a family that doesn’t have a history of higher education in their family to go to school,” university archivist Les Valentine said.
UNO’s history can be divided into four periods:
» The founding period (1908-30), which began with its incorporation followed by its opening Sept. 14, 1909, with the arrival of the first 26 students at the university’s original building at 24th and Pratt Streets. The student newspaper, founded in 1911, has always been known as “The Gateway,” according to a 2006 UNO publication. But the university remained on fiscally shaky ground until Omaha voters agreed to make it a municipal university — by a mere 1,020 votes — in an election on May 6, 1930.
» The municipal-university period (1930-68), during which the institution relocated to its current main campus near 60th and Dodge Streets — then on Omaha’s west edge. The initial 20 acres were purchased in 1936, and the new administration building, now Arts and Sciences Hall, was built with a U.S. Public Works Administration grant and dedicated in 1938.
Under Presidents Rowland Haynes and Milo Bail (the namesake of UNO’s student center), the university trained hundreds of Omaha defense-plant workers during World War II and developed its continuing emphasis on adult and continuing education as well as affordable undergraduate education. After the war, “we exploded in facilities and enrollment, similar to what we did after ’68,” Valentine said.
African-American students had attended Omaha University since the early years, Valentine said. During the 1960s, Don Benning, hired as wrestling coach in 1963, became the university’s first black assistant professor. The football team, then called the Indians, included Omaha’s Marlin Briscoe, later the first African-American starting quarterback in pro football history.
» The early UNO period (1968-96), which began taking shape as the university’s finances were strained by stagnant city property tax support. Omaha and state leaders debated and finally agreed to fold the University of Omaha into a new three-institution University of Nebraska system (the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, UNO and Omaha’s NU Medical Center).
Under Chancellors Ronald Roskens — later NU system president — and Del Weber, UNO expanded and modernized its main campus. The period included the debut of the university’s “Mavericks” nickname and the construction of the Strauss Performing Arts Center and the Henningson Memorial Campanile, as well as the launch of radio station KVNO.
UNO in 1972 founded the Center for Afghan Studies, which began working in Afghanistan even before that nation’s invasions by the Soviet Union in 1979 and the United States in 2001. The presence of Chinese, Indian, Turkish and Korean students can be traced in part to awareness of UNO through the Afghan center’s work, said Senior Vice Chancellor B.J. Reed, who arrived at UNO as a professor in 1982.
“We have far more international students in proportion to the rest of the campus than you might expect, especially in the middle of the country,” he said.
» The current period, which can roughly be traced to the 1996 founding of the Peter Kiewit Institute, the debut of UNO’s first doctoral program a year earlier and the opening of UNO’s first on-campus student housing in 1999.
PKI resulted from a mid-1990s tussle between Omaha and Lincoln community leaders over the course of engineering and information-technology education. The institute, a UNO-UNL collaboration, was established explicitly to prepare workers for the Information Age.
The PKI debate and the onset of doctoral studies helped fertilize the ground for additional centers of excellence, Reed said. It also helped raise UNO’s statewide profile, especially in northeast Nebraska, which has been fertile recruiting ground since the late 1990s. Success there also was aided by the successful push for on-campus housing by Chancellor Weber and successor Nancy Belck, Reed said.
PKI’s construction on the former site of the Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack launched a period of intense physical and academic growth. Mammel Hall, also built at Ak-Sar-Ben, became a new high-tech home for the university’s business programs in 2010. Growth on the main campus included the renovation and expansion of the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, including an advanced biomechanical research center.
The 2008 acquisition of the former Chili Greens Golf Course on West Center Road opened new ground for future state-of-the-art athletic facilities. Three years later, current Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts announced that UNO, which founded an NCAA Division I hockey team in 1997, would leave Division II and enter Division I in its other sports.
Though the Mavericks’ Division I debut in 2011 included new teams in men’s soccer and golf, two of UNO’s longtime athletic icons were absent: the wrestling team — national Division II team champion in its final season — and the century-old Maverick football team.
Baseball and softball stadiums and competitive track and tennis facilities are part of the athletic complex envisioned at Chili Greens, Reed said. Anchoring the site will be an indoor arena — currently slated for construction in 2015 or 2016 — that will become the new home of UNO’s volleyball, basketball and hockey teams. CenturyLink Arena currently hosts Maverick hockey, while the men’s basketball team plays at the Ralston Arena.
But UNO officials also have their eyes on expanding PKI, building an education and research building dedicated to the “STEM disciplines” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and constructing a home for radio, TV and journalism programs.
Reed said the university wants to add more residence halls at Ak-Sar-Ben as part of a goal to increase on-campus housing to 4,000 beds. UNO’s expansion goals also include the long-delayed completion of the Strauss Performing Arts Center, a showcase of the main campus since the 1970s. A wing to the south of the current structure was part of the center’s original plan, Reed said.